Bryan Caplan  

Update on Suicide Bombers and Life Insurance

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Quick reply to two interesting comments:
John Jenkins writes:

Does the average suicide bomber make the decision to commit suicide more than 1-2 years in advance? If not (and I would guess that "no" is the right answer), then doesn't their conclusion hold?

People rarely decide to become suicide bombers overnight.  It's hard to believe that the lag between the time you seriously consider becoming a terrorist and the time you actually blow yourself up is less than 1-2 years.  Does anyone familiar with the 9/11 case know how long it took them to move from theory to practice?

Lord writes:
Since the intent of suicide bombing is murder, it should fall under the criminal activities clause.
I could be wrong, but as far as I can tell this exclusion mainly applies to accidental death policies.  Still, whatever the law says, it is hard to see a jury ruling against an insurance company that refused to pay a terrorist's family, so in practice you might be right.

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Robert Simmons writes:

Perceptions drive actions. It doesn't matter if it's a myth, it only matters if the suicide bombers believe it. Would you argue that they can't possibly be blowing themselves up to get the 72 virgins because it's a lie?

Prakhar Goel writes:

This discussion seems more like a shouting match than a constructive debate.

No participant is/was/will ever be a suicide bomber or has had any contact with them (if I am wrong, please correct me). In light of this, exactly where are you getting your data from? What are you using to predict how long suicide bombers have to think about their decisions to become suicide bombers?

MikeDC writes:

I agree with Prakhar that this is unlikely to be constructive.

The fact it's discussed at all seems to me to be one of the weaker points in Superfreakonomics. While it's attention getting, I'd venture to guess that reliable data on suicide bombers is quite scarce. So any conclusion that gets reached is not going to be very robust.

How would one compare it to baseline life insurance coverage rates for people in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, where suicide bombings are quite a bit more prevalent.

And just anecdotally, at the height of the tactic's use in the Iraq War, the actual bombers were often, though not always, quickly recruited from the ranks of the physically and mentally disabled.

Fenn writes:

"It's hard to believe that the lag between the time you seriously consider becoming a terrorist and the time you actually blow yourself up is less than 1-2 years."

Wow, I suspect you are completely wrong on this.
9/11 is hardly the typical case of a suicide bomber.

I'll bet most people who board a bus with dynamite stuffed down their undies are pretty new to the game.

Freedom Thinker writes:

In my years with one of the top life insurance companies in the world we had a clause in the insurance policy that stated if you died in the act of committing a felony the policy was void.

Dan Weber writes:

Does anyone familiar with the 9/11 case know how long it took them to move from theory to practice?

From what I read at the time (and I haven't done serious investigation, so things may have changed), the leader of each group of hijackers knew what the plan was, but the followers thought that "hijacking" was the main goal, after which they would get various "demands" met. After they were in the air and had taken over, they found out that it was about crashing into buildings.

Peter Thoenen writes:

Two comments:

"Since the intent of suicide bombing is murder, it should fall under the criminal activities clause."

That is not exactly true anymore than the intent of war is murder or the intent of turning off the respirator for a coma patient is murder. The death of people might be the immediate goal (or means to the goal) but it is not the overall intent.

As for the suicide comment, I haven't seen an average though from what I have read it varies depending on what drives the bomber. The LTE groomed their suicide attackers for years, many in the Lebanon conflict volunteered years out, and prior to the war in Iraq and Afghan many Al-Q volunteers had to wait for the right time with the supply vastly outweighing the demand. I would probably agree the average is 2+ years prior to 2002 but now that suicide attacks have become chic it probably much lower though I would be willing to bet in the long term these are simply outliers.

George writes:


You mean the LTTE, right (i.e. the Tamil Tigers)?

I think this is hair-splitting:

The death of people might be the immediate goal (or means to the goal) but it is not the overall intent.

So say I kill you in order to take your car. I want the car so I can sell it to get cash to take a Caribbean vacation. Your death is not the goal, or even the means to the goal; the overall intent is to bask in the sun sipping rum drinks.

It's still murder.

The only way a suicide bomber is not a murderer is if he's engaged in an actual war, following the laws of war: e.g. he straps dynamite to himself and dashes under an enemy tank. Since suicide attacks are mostly against civilian and not military targets, the ultimate intent must be to terrorize the civilian populace. So a suicide bomber is someone who's committing murder in the furtherance of terrorism.

Peter Thoenen writes:


Except stealing my car isn't a political act whereas suicide bombing is. Also you won't convince me with the civilian argument; so called civilians pay taxes which fund the war, work in the rear to support the war, and breed the children who grow up and fight the war. You can't fight a war without a civilian support mechanism hence they are legitimate targets. If civilians don't want to be targeted then then they should use their political power to prevent pissing people off enough to want to kill them.

I would agree suicide attacks could constitute murder if done outside a political environment (lets say I blow myself up so my buddy can steal you car and go sip on that rum) but outside that I simply won't consider suicide attacks murder anymore than war, capital punishment, abortion, or medical end of life decisions. Murder has a very specific moral meaning (or at least the way I was raised / it was defined to me) and it isn't simply to kill another person outside the framework of established laws; I have a hard time equivilating suicide attackers with your average drunken street thug or socialpath.

Possibly, suicide bombers don't really want to end their lives, but are willing to do it if they are shamed/encouraged into it by their group.

If some have life insurance, they would be preferred. Their death would not injure their families as much or cost the Jihadi group as much in future support payments to the family.

So, buying life insurance would increase the chances of being selected, and might be a disadvantage overall.

Dave writes:

The 9/11 attackers were committed suicide bombers for a number of years before the event. Training in camps in Afghanistan in combat tactics, then later immigrating to the u.s. and e.u. countries and laying low for quite a while.

In Iran there are periodic rallies during which thousands of youth pledge to become martyrs at some point in the future, possibly years down the road.

Palestinian organizations also have the commitment of their membership to become suicide operatives upon entry to the group, even though that honor may not be bestowed upon them immediately.

It is nearly universal in jihadist organizations that to become a martyr is the highest honor, and even the low level administrators toil for years holding out hope they will one day be able to participate in a martyrdom operation.

Lord writes:

A serial killer kills for titillation, so that wouldn't be murder either? And declaring a political motive frees anyone of moral culpability so John Wilkes Booth was a patriot? Get serious. Twisting intent into some overarching vainglorious intent is misleading. All goals have subgoals that demand intent to fulfill them. Why do they not choose self-immolation if their only intent is a political statement? Their intent is to kill people. Under the laws and political framework they live, none of which apply to your other examples, it is homicide. They don't care who they kill, but they do want to kill. They may consider themselves guided by moral purposes higher than the law, or unguided by any moral principles, but that doesn't mean anyone else has to accept that. Certainly their victims would not. And whether it is a political statement or not has no bearing on it being murder.

Bob Calder writes:

Is this comment thread about the incontestability clause? There is also the war clause which is an exclusion. I don't think anybody involved in terrorist acts would say that it wasn't warfare. (Incontestability isn't an exclusion, it's a "condition".) Does anyone have any idea what kind of contract is issued in Arab countries?

Also, a policy is a contract and if the insured person's death arises from a criminal act, I expect the contract would be voided in law and not the contract language. However, I think the war argument is more influential. You could buy back the war exclusion anyway.

The typical suicide bomber is an religiously educated poor teenager, most of whom don't have life insurance even in this country. The 9-11 guys were atypical as suicide bombers. They were typical jobless, young (2 or 3 were engineering I think) graduates from Saudi Arabia. There is an interesting article in Science that speculates on the education of persons captured as well as the 9-11 conspirators. The upshot is that engineering is disproportionately represented in the education profile.

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