Middle-Class Suicide Bombers

Economist Alan Krueger‘s excellent work on terrorism — which we’ve discussed before — comes to the conclusion that suicide bombers tend to be surprisingly well-educated. They are not generally the poorest of the poor; in fact, they are more likely to be middle class members of society.

Now it turns out that further support for Krueger’s assertions is coming from an unlikely source: the video game Halo 3.

Clive Thompson, extremely well-educated and certainly middle-class at the least, describes in Wired how Halo 3 turned him into a suicide bomber.

(Hat tip: Ravin Pierre.)

Mike B.

Nubs who routinely get pwned often resort to suicide, in both real life and video games.

Michael Henke

Really well written article. Unfortunately, among the many "unreal" aspects was the rather transcendent fact that Clive does not actually die, and thus does not actually move beyond assuming a strategy. The only strategy with which he can destroy his tormentors. In reality, he would simply not play, given his inability to survive a war, and his knowledge aforethought.

An evolutionary psych paper by William Trivers, investigating reciprocal altruism, illustrated how trust, empathy, and gratitude could have acted as social cement, casting out non-cooperators, and creating a human nature, based on mutual trust, compassion, and empathy based entirely on self-interest. Unlike kin selection, members of a pack would help each other as long as rewarded, in a prisoner's dilemma of sorts where each party is aware of what transpired the last round, and therefore knows whom now to trust.

This may not have a lot to do with suicide bombing, but group dynamics have been defined with the purview of evolutionary psych. So what creates the non-depressed, non-mentally ill suicide bomber. Believing in his brethren's cause is sensible, but dying with such methodical planning seems to indicate that these insurgents are truly at the mercy of religious fanaticism that may obviate the natural human desire for life.



Mark Pil

This guy is just awful at Halo. Running towards your enemy while shooting them is a viable tactic, except when he gets close, he should be attacking them with a melee attack instead of the grenade. By using the grenade, which takes a few seconds to explode, he solidifies his own (virtual) death. If he just used a melee attack, which is essentially a pistol whip (or a machine gun whip, or a rocket launcher whip... you get the idea), he'd probably not only survive most encounters, but come out victorious as well.

sean s.

That suicide bombers come from the middle-class suicide bombers makes a kind of sense: they have been educated enough to know they will probably be deprived of the fruits of their labors, denied a fair chance to achieve their full potential, and acutely aware of their humiliation. The poor and the ignorant are too busy just trying to stay alive to have much sense of injustice. The middle class have climbed high enough up the social ladder to see how things work, but not high enough to see a way to fix things.

David W

Re comment 1, an "unreal" aspect of actual suicide bombers' beliefs is that they don't actually "die". They go to heaven rather than cease to exist.


@Michael Henke,

Excellent analysis. The question that forms in my mind is:
How does altruism get perverted to the point that a suicide bomber thinks that murder/suicide is an altruistic act? Certainly they have been convinced that their death will be like a videogame death, in that they will pop back up in a paradise. But, there are many passages in the Koran that specifically forbid this kind of act. How much frustration must have built up to be able to overcome that strong a prohibition?
I vaguely remember an article (sorry, no cite) that described a suicide cluster on a Pacific island. It indicated that young adults modelled themselves after other suicides (Orhan Pamuk's "Snow" covers this fictionally). Perhaps in trying to comprehend suicide bombers, we're looking at the wrong things. It could be that if we can stop the "cool kids" from blowing themselves up, we can also stop the nerds.



Why do people keep commenting on his play style and give him grief/tips on how to play? I've never seen such a broad range of comments that totally missed the point.

scott cunningham

But, in the case of the person who wrote the article, he argues that he is actually relatively poor compared to those he is killing. He is "poor in time," he says, because he does not have the time to devote to increasing his game skills. So even though that is caused by his wealth - high opportunity costs of becoming marginally better because of his wife, job and family - in the world in which the terrorism occurs he is actually poor. So it seems like his article suggests the terrorists are coming from the have-nots, not the wealthy. It doesn't seem to support Krueger exactly.


Regarding altruism, the question in my mind is altruism towards who? and under what conditions? Terrorism expert Robert Pape tracked the demographics of every suicide bombing from 1984 to 2004, looking at religious vs. secularist, socioeconomic status, gender, etc. What he showed was that religion, i.e. fundamentalism plays a far less significant role than does military occupation-Iraq and Israel-and perceived occupation (foreign powers controlling their leaders, like in Pakistan and Afghanistan). That secularist Tamil tigers (Hindus) had conducted far more suicide bombings than Islamic fundamentalists in any other occupied country. The takeaway for me is that when resources become scarce (land, energy, water) by "foreign" military/political violence, then altruism is directed to preserving your own kin so they can access resources and perpetuate the gene pool, rather than "others".

Avishai Schiff

Clive's article was one of the most insightful articles I have seen online. Is there psychological/game theory studies backing up his all too rational realization?


I certainly hope Clive Thompson can otherwise distinguish between video game and real life; otherwise we'll soon see him jumping on turtles, stealing cars from busy highways to embark on elaborate missions, smashing crates with crowbars, and building granaries to improve city growth by 50%.


There is a desperation borne of futility. It can cause you to throw all caution to the wind because you are simply "not going to take it anymore." Let someone block your every attempt to advance your career. You will likely not be that concerned about the murderous thoughts that go through your mind. Add a little fanaticism and the "DNA" of perceived victimization or righteous cause...and you got a murder on your hands.

I agree with another poster that said the middle class realize the terrible cost to their futures when superior forces are allied against them. The poor perhaps do not. And the rich, not suffering, will not feel the need for change.

Linda Rogers

Re Comment 6: "Perhaps in trying to comprehend suicide bombers, we're looking at the wrong things. It could be that if we can stop the “cool kids” from blowing themselves up, we can also stop the nerds."

I have often thought that if we could somehow develop a campaign that made fun of suicide bombers as dupes and patsies instead of giving them the honor/recognition of our anger and vengeance, we would do more to extinguish the behavior than we ever could by force. I believe fewer people will persist in a behavior that's laughed at than one that is punished.


This is what Sam Harris has been been saying for years now (the class of suicide bombers, not the Halo stuff). Your statistical chances of suicide killing go up the better educated you are.


"Now it turns out that further support for Krueger's assertions is coming from an unlikely source: the video game Halo 3."

I fail to see how the Wired article supports any of Krueger's assertions. The author states that he is "poor in time". To bring the analogy to the real-world, it means that the suicide bomber does not have the time or money to be a well-trained soldier, so he reverts to tactics that require little/no training. Whether you are poor, middle-class, or upper-class - most people aren't well-trained soldiers, and, therefore, all should resort to suicide bombings. Right? So, how does this support anything Krueger says when he argues that suicide bombers are middle-class?


I have heard somewhere that children of the disaffected middle class tend to become the leaders of the revolution. So keep the middle class happy. If the middle class in the US ever realizes how slanted our current economic system is towards the rich, then their children could become the leaders of a revolution here. Hopefully they will try the ballot box first.

Justin Weiss

Clive Thompson completely misses the crucial disticntion between suicide-bombing terrorists who strike at civilian targets in peacetime, and soldiers who sacrifice themselves to kill the enemy in the midst of war.

The players in Halo are armed warriors fighting a battle. They assume the risk of getting killed by the enemy. The vicitms of 9-11 and other suicide attacks did not. Hence, Thompson much more resembles a Japanese kamikaze pilot than a suicide bomber, and his analogy fails.


Suicide bombers who attacked in the US or Europe are from the middle class. But aren't most suicide bombers who attack in the middle east from poor households?

John S.

Very interesting. I found myself curiously cheered by the idea of some "expert" gamer clutching his controller in his mom's basement, wondering what just hit him.

Frank Mirer

This is in exact analogy to the Ultimatum Game in behavioral economics. In the Ultimatum Game, the second player will turn down an economic benefit greater than zero that is in the second player's interest to take because it's not "fair." Thereby punishing the first player by punishing himself.