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Suicide Bombers and the End of MAD

In Sunday's New York Times Magazine, the Council on Foreign Relations' Noah Feldman has written an article that looks at the specter of a nuclear Middle East in Islam, Terror and the Second Nuclear Age.

In the lengthy piece, Mr. Feldman offers a succinct passage that strikes at the core of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) as a psychological deterrent. Simply put, it almost certainly would no longer effectively apply.

What makes suicide bombing especially relevant to the nuclear question is that, by design, it unsettles the theory of deterrence. When the suicide bomber dies in an attack, he means to send the message “You cannot stop me, because I am already willing to die.” To make the challenge to deterrence even more stark, a suicide bomber who blows up a market or a funeral gathering in Iraq or Afghanistan is willing to kill innocent bystanders, including fellow Muslims. According to the prevailing ideology of suicide bombing, these victims are subjected to an involuntary martyrdom that is no less glorious for being unintentional.

So far, the nonstate actors who favor suicide bombing have limited their collateral damage to those standing in the way of their own bombs. But the logic of sacrificing other Muslims against their own wills could be extended to the national level. If an Islamic state or Islamic terrorists used nuclear weapons against Israel, the United States or other Western targets, like London or Madrid, the guaranteed retaliation would cost the lives of thousands and maybe millions of Muslims. But following the logic of suicide bombing, the original bomber might reason that those Muslims would die in God’s grace and that others would live on to fight the jihad. No state in the Muslim world has openly embraced such a view. But after 9/11, we can no longer treat the possibility as fanciful.


Readers will also want to see Wretchard's essay on this problem.

It was famously called "The Three Conjectures" and is readable at The Belmont Club.

Belmont Club: The Three Conjectures

Wretchard argues that if Islam uses the bomb against the West, it will necessitate the end of Islam.

Actually the key feature of MAD was the need to convince the other party that a rational decision to act irrationally was possible. If suicide is considered irrational then the US needed to convince the USSR that it would rationally decide to act irrationally to protect Tokyo or London. Simlarly the USSR needed to convince the USA that it could rationally accept destruction of Moscow if East Germany or Beijing were attacked. With suicide bombers this need goes away. We already know that they can rationalize an irrational decision. It does not therefore change MAD it merely enhances it.


I am not referring to MAD as an idea, I am referring to "Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) as a psychological deterrent."

With suicide bombers who justify the deaths of Muslim innocents as merely speeding their ascension into Heaven and justify the deaths of 'innocent' non-believers as hastening their final judgment before God, the deterrent factor that MAD provided is evaporated.

Indeed, when one considers the words of Ahmadinejad and his spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mezbah Yazdi, the sacrifice of an entire nation of people is justifiable if it ushers in the Perfect One, the Mahdi, the 12th Imam, for it serves a far greater purpose in their eyes.

Proliferation among Islamist terrorists and the Islamist terrorists' messianic state sponsors renders the deterrent factor effectively dead in the water.

The MADness, however, surely persists in the manner you suggest it.