Understanding suicide bombers

On The American Prospect Magazine – Ezra Klein Blog, ‘Mr AQI and US’, March 24, 2008

Deepak Tripathi

One thing that frequently strikes me is poor knowledge of history when experts discuss suicide bombers. If they are to be believed, people who are prepared to die as they launch attacks are ‘weird’, even ‘deranged’. For us in western countries, it does seem strange that anybody would want to blow themselves up to kill others. Al-Qaeda tactics are seen as new by terrorism pundits of today.

Not so, actually.

The concept of martyrdom while inflicting maximum damage to the enemy goes back hundreds of years if not more. When the Mughal armies repeatedly invaded what is now India in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, soldiers of Hindu princely states with saffron turbans on went to fight in the certainty of being killed (they too called it martyrdom). Back home, their women lit up funeral piers and jumped into flames for fear of being violated by the enemy. Similar episodes happened during the struggle for Indian independence in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

We know about the Japanese practice of hara-kiri and about Tamil suicide bombers more recently. Al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad or Hamas suicide bombers are not unusual in the context of history. Hindus and Christians did it, as recently as just twenty years ago in Sri Lanka and Northern Ireland. And a small number of Islamic fundamentalists are doing it now, with disastrous consequences.  

I believe in liberal, democratic values. From where I stand, there is something fundamentalist about all acts of deliberate self-sacrifice, however misplaced the belief which drives individuals to suicide attacks. But I have the luxury of a comfortable, relatively carefree lifestyle. I do not know the suffering, the pain, the humiliation of those who are at the other end. And I cannot appreciate how a tiny number of young people – children of middle-class families – are so profoundly affected by what they see that they are prepared to do the most unthinkable.

Fundamentalism cannot be fought with fundamentalism of the opposite kind.

It requires security measures in the short run and, in the long run, genuine political steps that will deprive Osama bin Laden of his constituency.    


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