Their martyrs, our heroes

Published on LeMondeDiplo, by John Feffer, September 2009.

Armies and guerrilla movements both deploy suicide missions, and both sides believe in a shared culture of heroic sacrifice. The difference between a ‘just war’ and terrorist targeting of civilians has been blurred for a long time.

The actor Will Smith is no one’s image of a suicide bomber. With his boyish face, he has often played comic roles. Even as the last man on earth in I Am Legend, he retains a wisecracking, ironic demeanour. And yet, surrounded by a horde of hyperactive vampires at the end of that film, Smith clasps a live grenade to his chest and throws himself at the enemy in a final burst of heroic sacrifice.  

Wait a second: surely that wasn’t a suicide bombing. Will Smith wasn’t reciting suras from the Koran. He wasn’t sporting one of those rising sun headbands that the Japanese kamikaze wore for their suicide missions. He wasn’t playing a religious fanatic or a political extremist. Will Smith was the hero of the film. So how could he be a suicide bomber? After all, he’s one of us, isn’t he?

As it happens, we have our suicide bombers too. “We” are the powerful, developed countries, the ones with an overriding concern for individual liberties and individual lives. “We” form a moral archipelago that encompasses the United States, Europe, Israel, present-day Japan, and occasionally Russia. Whether in real war stories or inspiring vignettes served up in fiction and movies, our lore is full of heroes who sacrifice themselves for motherland, democracy, or simply their band of brothers. Admittedly, these men weren’t expecting 72 virgins in paradise and they didn’t make film records of their last moments, but our suicidal heroes generally have received just as much praise and recognition as “their” martyrs.

The scholarly work on suicide bombers is large and growing. Most of these studies focus on why those other people do such terrible things, sometimes against their own compatriots, but mainly against us. According to the popular view, Shia or Tamil or Chechen suicide martyrs have a fundamentally different attitude toward life and death.

If, however, we have our own rich tradition of suicide bombers – and our own unfortunate tendency to kill civilians in our military campaigns – how different can these attitudes really be?

In America’s first war against Islam, we were the ones who introduced the use of suicide bombers. Indeed, the American seamen who perished in the incident were among the US military’s first missing in action.

It was 4 September 1804. The United States was at war with the Barbary pirates along the North African coast. The US Navy was desperate to penetrate the enemy defences. Commodore Edward Preble, who headed up the Third Mediterranean Squadron, chose an unusual stratagem: sending a booby-trapped USS Intrepid into the bay at Tripoli, one of the Barbary states of the Ottoman empire, to blow up as many of the enemy’s ships as possible. US sailors packed 10,000 pounds of gunpowder into the boat along with 150 shells …

… Time to open our eyes:

It would be far better if we opened our eyes when it came to our own world and looked at what we were actually doing. Yes, “they” sometimes have dismaying cults of sacrifice and martyrdom, but we do too. And who is to say that ending occupation is any less noble than making the world free for democracy? Will Smith, in I Am Legend, was willing to sacrifice himself to end the occupation of vampires. We should realise that our soldiers in the countries we now occupy may look no less menacing and unintelligible than those obviously malevolent, science-fiction creatures. And the presence of our occupying soldiers sometimes inspires similar, Will Smith-like acts of desperation and, dare I say it, courage.

The fact is: were we to end our occupation policies, we would go a long way toward eliminating “their” suicide bombers. But when and how will we end our own cult of martyrdom? (full long text).

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