Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Curse of Suicide Bombing

In Turkey, another Islamic state is suffering cruelly from the tragic disaster of suicide bombing. I have long thought that this pernicious way of waging war would haunt the Middle East for decades, and I curse the men who invented it. It gives violent expression to a sick mixture of rage and despair, combining nihilism and faith into a perfect death machine. A few years ago some American conservatives tried to rechristen these attacks "homicide bombings," but that didn't catch on because the certain death of the bomber is at the heart suicide bombing. This makes these attacks all but impossible to prevent, and more importantly gives them the power to express two opposite impulses: the suicide bomber surrenders personally while continuing the fight politically.

No nation where suicide bombing has become a cult can ever know peace.


G. Verloren said...

"I have long thought that this pernicious way of waging war would haunt the Middle East for decades, and I curse the men who invented it."

Like most terrible things, I imagine suicide bombing is fairly old - likely not much younger than bombs themselves are.

That said, bombs are merely the latest tool in the trend of suicide attacks. The Hashishiyeen of the crusading age were noted for their habit of performing close range kills with blades instead of relying bows, and making no attempt to flee after the attack. A millenia before them, the Sicarii were reputed to be conducting suicide attacks of their own against fellow Jews who became Hellenized. And I imagine since the earliest days of humanity and homicide, there have always been those who simply didn't care what happened to them once they had cut down their targets.

Bombs simply inform of us a harsh underlying truth: we cannot realistically defend ourselves against such attacks. The only possible solution is to work to deprive people of the desire or need to carry them out.

Shadow said...

The suicide bomber is the terrorist's smart bomb. I usually get yelled at saying that, but it seems to be a good analogy to me. That there are so many willing to die this way is baffling and indicates that I still don't understand the depths of the despair and hatred. Still, the whole idea of an army of soldiers killing themselves for a cause, I think, is self-defeating, a rot eating away the core of an idea gone awry.

G. Verloren said...

"The suicide bomber is the terrorist's smart bomb. I usually get yelled at saying that, but it seems to be a good analogy to me."

The difference is that suicide bombers can't fly, aren't as effective against hard targets, and don't cost $1,000,000+ each.

As for the numbers of such bombers, you don't really need an army of them - a few dozen is quite enough on its own. The point isn't to actually cause damage. The point is to cause fear, and to watch your enemy start to abandon their principles and tear themselves apart in terror.

And it's been working. Look at places like America and the UK. Look at the fear that runs rampant in the culture, shaping our media and politics. Look at the damage it can drive us to inflict upon ourselves. Groups like ISIS could never hope to cause the value of the British Pound to plummet and the global economy to shudder violently through conventional means, but they don't have to - we cause that damage for them by giving in to fear.

Shadow said...

That's why I also call it the poor, technology-deficient man's smart bomb.

You greatly overstate the fear; it does not run rampant. It's not like during the days following 911, when almost anything in the name of security was applauded, and we had an administration that took advantage of the fear. If it was, those who practice fear mongering to scare people and to pressure government officials to enact further restrictions and place more boots on the ground would be more successful.

But more than that, I think you conflate several different fears into one: fear of terrorism. We shape our media by demanding the dramatic, the contentious, and the salacious. (I make a distinction between The Press and The Media.) Plenty of drama everyday in the media about things not terror related. It's part of our culture. Twitter is the great marketing tool and exaggerator. Cable News is mostly opinion, the more outrageous the better, with everyone interrupting everyone. It costs nothing to make a fool of yourself or insult another. Terrorism, or the fear of terrorism, is just another issue absorbed into the great drama that is the media.

And to the extent fear exists in the culture, it too is caused by many things: the fear of losing your job, the fear of losing it to an immigrant who just arrived, the fear of losing your culture, the fear of rapid change beyond your control, the fear of surrendering sovereignty to a greater polity, the fear of losing a national identity, the fear of being left behind, and many more reasons. You don't really think the state of the British Pound and the global economy are a result of a fear of terrorism do you? Fear maybe, but a fear of the things I already mentioned.

G. Verloren said...


@Shadow Flutter

"You don't really think the state of the British Pound and the global economy are a result of a fear of terrorism do you? Fear maybe, but a fear of the things I already mentioned."

It need not be a direct fear. Fear of the other and fear of the unknown, which terrorism promotes, is certainly at the very heart of each of the other fears you mentioned.

People fear losing their jobs? Well what are they doing about it? Joining labor unions? Pressuring the government to set up labor programs like we did in the wake of the Great Depression, to create jobs by doing things like fixing our crumbling infrastructure? Reinforcing the social safety net by funding programs that aide the poor, unemployed, and at risk? Levying higher taxes on corporations and the ultra rich who control a staggering amount of the nation's wealth? Clamping down on workplace abuses and wrongful terminations? Introducing a living wage?

...or are they voting in droves for a man who wants to build a 1200 mile wall on the Mexican border, and demanding we turn away starving war refugees of a conflict which our nation is primarily and directly responsible for creating?

People fear losing their jobs to immigrants? Why? How bad do you have to be at your job to think your employers will prefer to hire people fresh off the boat who don't even speak English to replace you, rather than keep you around in a position they already have filled? You should be far more worried about losing your job to foreign workers who don't immigrate - your corporate overlords would love lay you off and move operations overseas in order to pay hourly wages in pennies, not have to offer benefits, and not have to obey regulations.

...but for some reason, no one is out there demanding that corporations which "outsource" overseas be denied the benefits of operating as a US company - too bust trying to ban immigrants, I guess.

G. Verloren said...


Fear of losing one's culture or national identity? I'm sorry - did I miss the era of American history where millions of foreign immigrants ended up destroying American culture? Was it the Germans who robbed us of our identity by coming here in droves? Maybe the Irish? How about the Italians? The Chinese, perhaps? Because the last I checked, no group of immigrants into this country, no matter how large or foreign, has ever come remotely close to threatening American culture.

...if you want to talk about losing one's culture, maybe go have a chat with the Native Americans whom we systemically, -literally- robbed of their country, culture, and all too often their very lives. Don't feel to bad if they laugh at you - it'd be a lot better than them shaking their heads at you in sorrow and disgust.

Fear of rapid change beyond one's control? What sorts of rapid change are people afraid of, other than immigration? And if rapid change is so terrifying, why vote to create more of it by suddenly ending a stable mutually beneficial arrangement that had been in place for almost half a century?

Fear of surrendering sovereignty to a greater polity? Which countries have done that recently? Perhaps war torn regions like Sudan or Yemen, where people's lives are being shaped by the whims of warlords and dictators? Perhaps Iraq, where a coaltition of foreign powers invaded and destroyed their government by force, then left the region to develop a power vacuum which gave rise to the current-day crisis? Becase certainly no European country has surrendered their sovereignty to any greater polity recently.

...unless you count Ukraine, of course. Russia invades and occupies a neighboring country, and we all twiddle our thumbs about it. But a wave of refugees to Europe from places like Syria and Lebanon, and suddenly the EU is robbing Britain of their national sovereignty somehow? Despite the UK having willingly chosen to enter into the partnership and agree to the rules involved, and having being more or less pleased with the arrangement for nearly fifty years now? And despite there being no meaningful difference between the UK-EU relationship of two years ago and that of today, other than the matter of dealing with war refugees which the UK had a direct hand in creating?

Fear of being left behind? By whom? How? Britain is one of primary economies of the world, with their actions creating ripple effects across the globe. Who do they fear is in danger of surpassing them? Even if there somehow were someone threatening to "leave them behind", how does cutting ties with the rest of Europe help anything at all, rather than simply hurt them?

Unknown said...

In reference to what John says, "No nation where suicide bombing has become a cult can ever know peace."

I think there may be some tendency to overstress the techniques of warfare (cf. your recent post about bombing) and their, so to speak, aesthetic and moral resonances, as variables independent of the people and institutions that order their use, and the purposes of those people and institutions. Yes, there is a kind of "cult" of suicide attackers, with online videos and so forth glorifying them, the mythology of martyrdom, etc. But suicide bombing does not take place as a cult of itself, and doesn't persist because a nation has somehow been infected by this cult. Instead, these acts are ordered by leaders who see them serving their purposes.

One could cite the case of the Tamil revolt in Sri Lanka, which, at least as of about ten years ago, still held the record as producing by far the largest number of suicide bombings. Since that war has been pacified (more or less), those bombings have essentially stopped. They haven't persisted as some kind of autonomous event, apart from the war that created them.

An interesting study of Islamic suicide bombing is "Terrorists in Love," which features detailed interviews with several near-bombers and other members of extremist organizations. What I got from that is that 1) the despair was usually personal, having to do with family situations, thwarted love, a desperate desire to impress one's father, etc. and 2) built into the terrorist system was an elaborate and tense relationship between the bombers and their leaders, the latter shadowy figures pursuing their own purposes.

Shadow said...

Your points about immigrants -- are there immigrants who are not foreign? -- and Native Americans, while true, do not address the point I was making. One's fear is fear whether grounded in reality and history or not, and if enough people share the fear, that fear becomes political power or political unrest. Your point about Germans et al. could be part of a larger argument to dissuade people of their fear, but your point about Native Americans, while equally true, would, I think, rather than disabuse anyone of their fear, add to their anxiety.

Historically, rapid change is destabilizing, and can sometimes create a discontinuity. Generally, societies absorb change best when it occurs slowly. Of course, slow and fast are relative, but not infinitely stretchable.

As to sovereignty, I mentioned the EU in a previous post. Yes, the loss of sovereignty is more than offset by the economic gains most, but not all, prosper from. But as to which is more important, that's a value judgment, and values differ on the issue. And as I understand it, yes, a country can choose not to implement an EU rule, but it then faces the possibility of fines from the Court of Justice in Luxembourg, a clear loss of sovereignty. And I need not get into the concern some here have with the U.N.

Left behind by youth, the more recently educated, technology, outdated skills, by simply being old, etc. Which brings me to your 1/2 post. That we have not funded a massive infrastructure program is a great failure of government, and a partial explanation for Trump. But this, while badly needed to modernize our infrastructure and create good paying jobs, is no permanent solution to the underlying problems of increasing automation and jobs going overseas. Unions have no solutions for either of these. Just wait for when the 3-D printer becomes efficient, effective, and affordable.

Yes, I do think there are businesses that would chuck an experienced worker for an unskilled worker, because not all jobs require experience or skill or language proficiency. Pushing a wheelbarrow? Mixing cement for bricklayers? Digging holes and trenches? Cleaning homes? Being a janitor? Fruit picker? These are physically demanding jobs, and they add up. Immigration is a particular problem for low-skilled workers. Controlling low-skill immigration along with providing a minimum wage that one can support his or her family on is essential economic policy, and another failure of government. I would prefer to see those who already live here get what few jobs there are. Of course, that's my value judgment.

John said...


I suppose the example of Sri Lanka shows that it is possible to end suicide bombings politically. But I worry that suicide bombing is much more than just a way of waging war, that because it can so easily connect personal despair to political violence, it takes on a life of its own. It seems to me that once the idea is implanted, apostles of violent change will always be able to find victims whose issues with their families or whatever make them susceptible to the call.

Unknown said...


I think in reference to the Islamic world, it will be a very long time before we could possibly tell if suicide bombing is as mobile or mutable in its ideological moorings as you imply. The current wave of apostles of violent change look to have decades and decades of life left in them. Extreme Sunni Salafism has many roots, many secure home bases, and many secure sources of material support, especially in countries that are ostensibly US allies. There's no sign of that abating or of any sort of realistically expectable political settlement that could satisfy it.

G. Verloren said...


Suicide bombings, like any terrorist act, only continue so long as the people carrying them out feel it is necessary.

For example, the IRA (although not employing suicide, per se) stopped bombing the English when a workable peace that they felt they could live with came into being. A point was reached where carrying out more violence no longer served any purpose. What they stood to gain by continuing the bombings no longer outweighed what they stood to gain by stopping them.

Of course, a big part of that was waning popular support for the whole conflict in both Ireland and England - particularly among young people. Plenty of older hardliners on both sides were quite prepared to keep spilling blood and damn the consequences, just so long as they could drag each other down to hell. But when the common people of each side could no longer sympathise with their leaders - when their own countrymen were against them, and telling them that their actions were harming the interests of their fellows, the top brass had little choice but to listen and reluctantly broker a peace.

If we can reach a point where young men in the Middle East and elsewhere feel that they have subtantially more to gain by living with a workable peace than they do by killing themselves to wage an unending war, then we'll see a stop to much of the terrorism of the present day. If we can create conditions where these young men no longer feel that their best possible life option is to strap a bomb to themselves and kill as many innocent people as they can, then we can end this madness. But not until then.