Following the suicide bombing attack at the Manchester Arena, a Muslim friend asked me, as an atheist, “Where does evil come from?” He had his own views, but he wanted to hear mine. The answer isn’t short, it isn’t simple, and it isn’t pleasant. I don’t think that it makes sense to talk of evil. It’s not something that be exchanged or grown, or even measured. The desire to kill and to die in that act of killing is very deeply rooted in human nature. It’s not something that can be taught, it’s something that is lurking within and gets awoken.
In order to better understand what is going on, we need to look at events in another part of the world. On 14th December 2012, a man named Adam Lanza went into Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut in the USA. He proceeded to shoot and kill twenty children aged six or seven years old, as well as six adults. As the police entered the school, Lanza shot himself in the head, ending his rampage. In the space of five minutes, he killed twenty children and took his own life. Subsequent investigations of Lanza’s life showed no evidence of recruitment to any religious or political movement. He seemed to have no grievance against the children of Sandy Hook or their families. He acted alone, with forethought, with extensive planning, and with an aim to kill a large number of people. The factors surrounding Lanza’s actions are complex, they took years to unfold, and it’s likely we will never fully understand why he did what he did.
Lanza is not alone. The Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres also saw mass shootings followed by suicide. All these killers shared common characteristics. They were all young men (with the oldest being 23), all felt socially isolated, and all planned their attacks meticulously. The amount of planning alone is enough to understand that these young men considered the massacres to be an important goal in their lives, perhaps what they considered the purpose of their lives. The suicidal shootings have many parallels with the Islamic extremist suicide attacks we see around us. The main difference is that (at least most of the time) the Islamic suicide attackers are trained to believe what they believe. Their inner desires to kill and to die is excited by the teachings they receive. If the same kind of reeducation was applied to suicide shooters, we would have a lot more massacres like Columbine and Sandy Hook.
This only goes so far in explaining the origin of the acts. We can point towards proximal causes, but there must be something deeper that is already there. To make progress we need to look at evolutionary factors. We are animals, and we are social animals. We can learn from the actions of our closest relative, the common chimpanzees. Chimpanzees live in tribes, and occasionally, the male chimpanzees from one tribe will take part in a raid of another tribe. In these raids, the chimpanzees with fight to the death, attacking the faces, hands, and genitals of the chimpanzees in the rival tribe. The fights are vicious, with high mortality rates on both sides. Somehow, the chimpanzees get into a state of mind where they are willing to kill their peers in cold blood, with a very high probability of dying themselves. The end result is that the tribe then takes in the female chimpanzees of the rival tribe, and the genes for male violence and female complicity get passed on to the next generation. There is nothing exceptional about this behaviour. When a lion enters a new pride, it’s common for him to eat all the male cubs in the pride. Once again, the violent genes make it into the next generation, while the pacifist genes must compete with those of violence.
Cold blooded murder, occasionally accompanied by the high risk of death, is instinctual in some species. The violence is gendered, and usually most active when the males of the species are most sexually active. There are parallels with how young men sometimes act in human civilisation. We are, after all, still animals. We have instincts, some of which we don’t understand, and some of which are deeply uncomfortable. For more information on the evolutionary roots of this violence and how it influences suicide bombing, see the talk given a decade ago by Dr Andy Thomson:
We see similar (although less bloodthirsty) thought processes during war. Given the choice between fighting with a relatively high probability of dying, or a low probability of being sent on a suicidal mission, the vast majority of military personnel will choose the first option. The first option seems “fairer”, even though it results in more death. This is a reflection of the raids carried out by the chimpanzees. It’s instinctual to find the first option fair and the second option abhorrent, when really it’s the genes which are influencing our thought processes. The psychology of performing a suicide attack is just as important as the physical capability of performing that attack.
So far, this is best answer I have to “Where does the evil come from?” The answer is not satisfying, it’s deeply unsettling, and it takes a long time to understand. What is important to appreciate is that this kind of violence is not limited to one group of people, or one set of beliefs. If the same suicidal murderous tendencies manifest in the USA and in Islamic extremist terror cells, then it must be caused by something deeper than extreme beliefs. The psychological ability to commit murder and suicide comes from within, but the opportunity usually comes from outside.
This does not mean that attacks are inevitable. It does not mean that the suicidal killers are blameless. It does not mean that we cannot prevent these attacks. What it does mean is that it will take a huge amount of effort, and we will only eliminate Islamic extremist suicide killings when we can also eliminate suicidal mass shootings in the USA. The problem is much deeper than most of us want to accept.
I’m not in a position to provide any answers when it comes to preventing further attacks. I don’t have them. Many more suicide attacks are prevented than take place, so there are ways to prevent the attacks. A lot more must be done to protect ourselves.
Social isolation is a common characteristic of the shooter suicide attacks in the USA. Although this is true, it’s important to note that this is often self imposed. Perhaps the worst example is that of Elliot Rodger, who ran over and shot six people in Isla Vista, California, before killing himself. He was well educated, came from a wealthy family, he was well spoken, and he did well at school. His social skills were very poorly developed. He didn’t seem to understand how to interact with other people and expected others to reach out to him without any effort on his part. Adam Lanza had severe Asperger’s syndrome and lacked empathy. Seung-hui Cho (of the Virginia Tech massacre) was selectively mute and had severe difficultly communicating with people. None of these characteristics made Rodger or Lanza or Cho more violent, but they did lead to social isolation. Some of that social isolation may have been self-imposed, whether by choice or not. In all the cases mentioned, with the exception of the Sandy Hook massacre, there were opportunities for various authorities to intervene. That could be seen as a failure of the authorities to act, and there is some truth to that, but it is made more difficult to intervene when people isolate themselves.
Returning to Islamic extremist suicide attackers, things are not so simple. Attackers are often a part of a terrorist cell, made to see their victims as foreign peers, who have ostracised them. This is necessary because the knowledge, resources, and skills needed to carry out an explosive attack are non trivial, and there is usually a strong element of indoctrination involved.
It’s important to note that attacker in Manchester grew up in Manchester, that the attackers in London in 2005 grew up in Leeds and Aylesbury. They attacked people from their own country, in public places. Salman Abedi did not travel from Libya to the UK to attack people in Manchester, he lived in Manchester his whole life. Similarly, the school shooters in the USA took to their own schools for their acts of murder. Given this, it seems that suicide attackers tend to kill in their own society, rather than traveling abroad to commit their acts.
Salman Abedi was Muslim, and he was also British. Adam Lanza was probably an atheist, and he was also American. Lanza was more deadly than Abedi. This underscores one of the real lessons we need to learn. It’s not a person’s religious or ethnic background that leads to these kinds of killings. It’s the other factors that excite the inner desire to kill and to die, whether that’s Islamic extremist indoctrination, or social isolation, mental illness, and easy access to guns.