Sunday, October 23, 2011

post #14 - The Suicide Bomber

     The suicide bombers we all hear about have come from places such as Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom, not from Iran, but Iranians can fully appreciate the overwhelming imbalance in the technology of war between the United States, the U.K. and Israel on the one side, and everyone else on the other. As in Algeria, when Algerians fought the French, or in France itself, when the Free French fought the Germans, those who fight with little in the way of armaments may feel themselves justified in using virtually any means available. This is not to excuse such tactics; Christians should condemn every instance of disregard for the sanctity of human life. It is simply to appreciate how the word martyr can mean the devout and pacific St. Stephen to one group of people (Christians), and the car-bomb driver to another group (some Muslims); a hero can be the freedom-fighter saboteur in one context (such as service in the Greek underground) or a hotel-bomber (from Menachem Begun's Irgun) in another. Few Americans who watched Trini Lopez and Jim Brown drop bombs on German and French party-goers in a Nazi bunker (in the Robert Aldrich film The Dirty Dozen) felt that those guys were terrorists. The reason, of course, is that those whom they killed, even the women who had no direct role in the German war effort, were portrayed as emblems of evil -- unworthy of compassionate consideration.

Jim Wallis writes in a recent book: “There is no symmetry in the violence of the Middle East today....Despite this lack of proportionality, there is no moral or strategic justification for the terrorist Palestinian violence targeted against civilians in response to Israeli domination,” and that is quite true. But, for those who do not enjoy “superpower” status (that is, all the other six billion-plus people on the planet), it is easier to grasp that tactics such as suicide bombing have come into existence where conventional means of waging a struggle are simply not available. The objective circumstances of young Palestinians create the mental climate that makes suicide missions seem tenable. As James Baldwin said about ghetto-dwellers in our own country, "The most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose."

In modern times, suicide bombing began among the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, according to a study of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, but we can also point to the European anarchist bombers of the early twentieth century, Chechen separatist hostage-takers, or ghetto militants firing on police stations during the “long, hot summers” in America’s cities in the '60s, as manifestations of that which Baldwin warned of. Labels like "terrorist" or "freedom-fighter" should not be allowed to obscure the basic equivalence of human cost; loss and suffering are experienced by human beings similarly, whatever the means of their infliction, be it crude IED's or sanitized high-tech weaponry.

In any event, it is not a settled issue within Islamic thought, that suicide-homicide is ever permissible, even under the most extreme circumstances of defense-of-others. There are strong Koranic injunctions against both suicide and against the taking of innocent life. “He who slayeth anyone, unless it be a person guilty of manslaughter or spreading disorders in the land, shall be as though he had killed slain all mankind.” (Holy Koran, Sura 5:34)

Sacrifice was an element in the 2006 confrontation between Hezbollah and the Israel Defense Force in southern Lebanon. Israel's head of military intelligence at the time commented (according to former president Jimmy Carter) on the fact that the message – a highly-effective one, as it turned out – of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah to his followers was “to regain lost readiness to sacrifice, readiness to suffer.” And, there was the familiar imbalance in results: the death toll in southern Lebanon that year was 27 Israeli civilians killed in the bombardment with Hezbollah rockets and more than 800 Lebanese civilians dead or missing, with a million displaced for some period of time, according to Carter.

It is important to note that people in what is termed the Muslim world are not predominantly supporters of suicide bombings directed at civilians. This spring's Pew Global Attitudes survey showed wide variance; grouping the results between positive (justified "often" or "sometimes") and negative ("rarely" or "never" justified), the Washington Post reported these findings:

Egypt:           8% vs. 83%
Pakistan:       9% vs. 81%
Indonesia:   10% vs. 90%
Morocco:     11% vs. 78%
Turkey:        16% vs. 65%
Ethiopia:     18% vs. 73%

There were other countries that were higher in the "positive" column, but only in the Palestinian Territories did the "positive" percentage represent over half of the respondents. Moreover, the "negatives" -- representing those opposed to suicide bombings -- grew between 2002 and 2007 in nearly every country, including Palestine.

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