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The Rationale of Suicide Bombing
by Kim Petersen
January 24, 2005

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In an original Star Trek episode, “Journey to Babel,” a high-speed Orion spaceship was attacking the Starship Enterprise. Using subterfuge, the Enterprise managed to disable the attacking vessel, which self-destructed rather than be captured. A disguised Orion captive died on the bridge of the Enterprise from a self-administered poison. It turned out that the suicide mission was intended to foment interplanetary war so that the neutral Orions could clean up by selling dilithium crystals to the two sides in the conflict. In other words, the crew of the Orion ship had executed a suicide bombing to enrich some capitalists back on their home world.

Now imagine yourself as a jobless Iraqi surrounded by two M-16 assault rifle-toting US troops and their soulless Iraqi collaborators. Being jobless in Iraq is the norm, as 70 percent of your neighbors can attest. Besides, the few jobs that are available involve selling one’s soul to the occupying enemies, the ones who bombed your house to smithereens with your wife and three children in it. The same ones that imprisoned and raped your innocent mother and sister in Abu Ghraib -- this after your father died with the jackboot of an American soldier on his face and a rifle wedged excruciatingly deep into his groin. It wasn’t enough that they had looted your parents’ house of any savings and the few valuables; they had also bulldozed the house to the ground.

You wandered around in a daze for days afterward. One scorching day, you sat in the shade of a dilapidated falafel shop on a filthy street corner and gazed at the smoldering devastation. Some women were drawing pungent water from a crater filled by a burst pipe across the street. An expressionless man walked by with his infant child, ugly with the glow of depleted uranium. You hack and spit spasmodically while longing for a cigarette.

Normally you were an honest man, but hunger drove you to steal a handful of falafels.

You sought solace in the mosque, but while praying a posse of US troops stormed through the gate and into the holy sanctuary. They upended everything, roughly frisked you and the other worshippers, and then kicked you out on your ass, spraying a few shoots into the air for frightening effect. But you weren’t afraid.

You had considered yourself the cowardly type, but that was when there was something to live for. But then you realized that there was something to live for -- or rather die for. It was then that you decided to cautiously put out the word of your intention to serve the resistance. You let it be known that you were willing to do anything to rid your country of what you considered occupying vermin.

Now you find yourself harangued for a piece of occupier-imposed ID by Iraqi police. You plead for understanding but you are shoved back ungraciously. Two US troops chuckle at your dilemma. The police collaborators, spurred on by their cackling colleagues, kick your legs out from under you to further whoops of merriment. You stagger slowly back onto your feet and totter disdainfully towards the suddenly leery Americans who quickly raise their weapons. It is at that moment, as you trigger the explosive cache strapped around your waist, that you feel filled with purpose again in your life. It is an irrevocable sense of purpose, in a life that had been stripped of purpose.

Next day, the buried headline in a US daily reads: “2 US Soldiers Killed by Suicide Bomber.” The subheading reads: “3 Others Killed, 5 Injured.” Iraqi casualties, of course, are relegated to a subheading. The story gave the names and hometowns of the US fatalities, noting the grieving next-of-kin. There was little mention of the Iraqi fatalities or injured parties. One might surmise that the Iraqi deaths were only worth mentioning insofar as they magnify a perceived depravity of the suicide bombers. The suicide bomber was described merely as a middle-aged man. Suicide bombers are seldom scrutinized in the western media. It is as if the moniker “suicide bomber” is sufficient in itself. 

In sacrificing one’s own life, however, the suicide bomber has surmounted the human nature for self-preservation. But the suicide bomber’s actions have greater significance. The suicide bomber, who targets military enemies, can be considered as a courageous fighter, a throwback to warriors of old.

The technique of suicide bombing is an atavistic form of violence. Historically viewed, warfare has technologically advanced through cowardice, and the American fighters are the leading exemplars of this. In his A History of Warfare, historian John Keegan wrote, “Fighting at a distance with missiles was beneath the descendants of the armored men-at-arms who had dominated European warmaking since the age of Charlemagne.” Keegan documented the opprobrium at fighters that used weapons to distance themselves from their enemies, from the execution of the crossbowmen prisoners of Baynard, “on the ground that their weapon was a cowardly one,” to the Mamelukes’ disgust at the feminine musket that European Christians used to slay Muslims. The suicide bomber overcomes the timorous distancing-of-self in battle by requiring propinquity to the target.

So what about the two fictional US troops that were killed? Why were they in Iraq? Turns out they were small-town heroes in death. A loving wife and 6-year-old daughter survived the 35-year-old sergeant. The private was a 21-year-old single man. The senior soldier had joined the military out of a full blown patriotic fervor. He believed he was in Iraq fighting the perpetrators behind 9-11. The young private had flipped burgers for a year in a greasy-spoon joint and saw the military as a chance at adventure. He had never in his wildest dreams imagined being shot at.

There were no photographs of their flag-draped coffins at the funeral. There was no war president to be seen at the fallen soldiers’ funerals.

Meanwhile, back in reality, many US soldiers in Iraq, who largely represent a poverty draft, continue to put their lives on the line so transnational corporations, such as Bechtel and Halliburton, can exploit this century’s dilithium crystals: oil. Only one group of fighters can logically be said to be dying for their country in this violence. The other group is dying for the craven, plundering ruling-class of empire.

In another Star Trek episode, “The Doomsday Machine,” the commander of the Starship Constellation, deranged by the death of his crew, embarked on a nugatory suicide mission. The Enterprise’s captain, James Kirk, lamented the death of his colleague: “It’s regrettable that he died for nothing.”

Kim Petersen is a writer living in Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at:

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