Let’s stop pretending suicide bombers are cowards

12 July, 2005 at 9:21 am 2 comments

Am I the only one who gets really angry with the media depiction of suicide bombers as cowards? They may be many things, but cowards they certainly aren't! I've fought in a war, and one thing that strikes me forcibly is that most soldiers spend and awful lot of time and energy surviving! The idea is to kill the enemy while escaping harm. Yet these people quite deliberately give up their lives. When I try to imagine myself into the mind of the bombers, or the terrorists who flew the planes into the twin towers, I'm haunted by wondering what it is like waking up knowing that today you are going to die. Or what goes through their minds in the last seconds before they detonate their bombs. Are they frightened? Any last-minute doubts about whether or not it's worth it? When they look at the passers-by they are going to kill, what do they think, or feel?

Why do suicide bombers evoke such particular horror in us? Why do we portray them as so very, particularly evil? It can't be for their effectiveness – many bombers die taking hardlyanyone with them. Perhaps it's the deliberation of it all. Or the knowledge that anyone around could be a walking bomb. Or maybe it's our horror of casualties. After all, we expect to go to war with minimal casualties. We have smart bombs and tanks that can pound the hell out of people and places from great distances. We shelter our troops behind inches of toughened metal and glass. We kill people from heights or distances. We rarely have to see them, or engage with them as human beings. They are statistics. Our military language carefully removes the personal, human element from our killing and dying. Suicide bombers don't allow us that sort of detachment. Their stuff is too "in our faces"; too personal. They remind every one of us that, in their eyes, we're to blame – each of us. Not just our government, but us. They say, in effect, "This is between you and me".

We are happy to participate in the kinds of things that breed suicide bombers. Israel carries out its state terrorist policies (well, come on, let's call a spade a spade! If anyone elese did what they do to the Palestinians, we'd regard it as an act of terrorism, wouldn't we?) because Britain and the US exercise their vetos in the UN. We might not like it. We might protest. But we don't see ourselves as deliberately and personally involved. In the eyes of the victims, we're culpable. We are participating. When a Palestinian loses a child to an Israeli sniper or gunship, or his wife dies giving birth at a chekpoint because the soldiers won't allow her to get to an ambulance, or a farmer loses his land and wealth at a stroke because the Wall is routed through the family olive grove, then that person blames you and me, just as much as George Bush, Tony Blair or Ariel Sharon.

I spoke to some Palestinian young people of 17-18 years. What was terrifying was the level of despair. They saw no way out, no end to the fighting and no means of influencing events. The only people who, in their eyes, were doing anything positive, were Hamas. One told me, "The Americans think they have their smart bombs. Well, we've got even smarter bombs!" She was referring to suicide bombers. Pretty desperate when you look at suicide bombers as a sign of hope, eh? And when a 14 year old girl believes the only thing left is to sign up as a martyr – what is going on?

And no, before anyone starts, this isn't an apology for terrorism or suicide bombers. On a personal and spiritual level, it's an attempt to understand fellow human beings. I think that is vital and we do no good pretending things are other than they are. Calling them cowards makes it easy to dismiss them. I interrogated many "terrorists" in Zimbabwe. Some had done some very, very evil things. But there were two things that struck me. Firstly, they were, without exception, brave. Secondly, they saw themselves as being engaged in a struggle against a great evil, against a powerful enemy who was waging a terror war on their people, with no means to wage it other than through terrorism.

That was a salutary lesson for me. It meant I had to take them seriously as human beings. It meant I had to take seriously the fact that they had consciences and a moral argument for what they were doing. It meant I had to take them seriously as soldiers. It meant that I couldn't ignore the ways in which they saw every citizen of what was Rhodesia as intimately connected to and involved in what was going on on the streets of the black townships.

If we want to rid the world of terror, one of the things we need desperately to do is to avoid playing things as though they are different from the way they are. If we don't like terror on our streets, then we must recognise that it has come to our streets from their streets. And they reckon we're to blame! We can't just disagree – we need to struggle for justice and peace.


Entry filed under: current affairs, terrorism.

Visions to avoid Can we handle life in the highways and byways?

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dave Faulkner  |  14 July, 2005 at 11:13 am


    I found your blog courtesy of Maggi Dawn. This piece is very helpful. I didn’t notice a link for an RSS or XML feed on the site, though. It would be good to follow your thoughts that way, if possible.

    Grace and peace

  • 2. Wol  |  14 July, 2005 at 7:08 pm

    Many thanks for the encouragement, Dave. I’ve tried to sort out the syndication – but I’m a novice at this!


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