Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Illogic of Suicide Terrorism

By Richard Norman

How should we feel about Islamist[1] suicide terrorism? There are two main camps of thought. The first suggests that it is an asymmetrical weapon employed by the oppressed and otherwise powerless. The second believes it is an irrational, reprehensible act. (Those who claim it is a politically “understandable” tactic belong to the first camp)[2].

The debate about Islamist suicide terrorism takes place in deep and muddy waters. This water is muddied by, among other things, growing anti-Americanism throughout the world, religion, xenophobia, and exoticism. But if we examine the assumptions underlying common responses to this form of suicide terrorism, we may gain some insight.

To begin with, this is not a debate about mens rea. We are not discussing the question of guilt or intentionality because the suicide terrorist freely admits that his aim is to kill as many civilians as possible (a canard here is that the terrorist may choose to avoid the distinction between soldiers and civilians, claiming both are his enemy). Criminality is established. But as everyone knows there are moral exemptions to criminal liability.

The issue at hand is not intentionality: it is the extenuation of explanation. Just as some extenuate the amorality of a mass murderer by pointing to his childhood of abuse, others point to the courage, dedication, and political rationality of the suicide terrorist. Often such people do not look further than statements made, in the case of al-Qaeda, by Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri. Statements made by these men, which suggest that an aggressive American and Israeli foreign policy is the root cause of global (and particularly Middle Eastern) injustices, often jibes with some in the West who argue for a more peaceful and equitable foreign policy, one that celebrates differences and human rights.

Because they share an argument—American and Israeli foreign policy is responsible for a lot of injustices—some liberals can understand or explain al-Qaeda’s actions (though the vast majority would condemn them). Suicide terrorism is an effect of a cause (unjust American or Israeli foreign policy). The act of suicide terrorism, though clearly criminal, is a rational response to the desperate suffering of the bomber’s people. It is understandable why people would behave in such a way. Furthermore, though they should be condemned, they certainly show a strong commitment to their “cause.” A famous example of this thinking belongs to Susan Sontag, who a week after the attacks of September 11th, wrote that, “In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.”

To confuse courage with delusion, and rationality with the most dangerous sophistry, is a serious error. But this view is quite prevalent, and must be addressed.

Islamic suicide terrorism is not a rational effect of a rational cause. Part of its appeal (distinct from its cause) may be the provision of an enemy—the United States, for example, whose foreign policy may provide a supposed jus ad jihad—but suicide terrorism is caused by (in other words, its object of action is) delusion and the cult of martyrdom. No reasonable reading of the Quran can offer its legitimation. (And even if a reading could legitimate it, this would hardly make it any more rational). The engine driving suicide terrorism is not American foreign policy, but the cult of martyrdom. Without the mechanistic notion of the Islamist’s jihad, nothing causes suicide terrorism. Islamism, as Martin Amis recently wrote in his essay “The Age of Horrorism,” is “varnish on a vacuum . . . ideology superimposed on religion.” It explains nothing but itself.

A suicide bomber may strongly believe that having struck a blow against the infidels and hastened the coming of the great war that will establish the global caliphate, he will ascend instantly to paradise. He may indeed believe this—just as members of the Manson Family strongly believed the commission of their murders would hasten an apocalyptic race war (which would conclude with Charles Manson emperor over all). This analogy is not a spurious provocation. Death is the technique of a death cult.

Suicide terrorism’s effect is no more rational than its cause. It makes no effort to separate those whom it hates (Americans and other infidels) from those it might reasonable—if it had a rational political program—exempt from murder (fellow Muslims). Both were killed in the World Trade Center among people of more than eighty other nations, many of whom were citizens of countries who had never oppressed a Muslim person. This is to say that its violence is more than essentialist (not distinguishing between American soldiers and civilians), it is totalizing: everyone at the scene of a suicide terrorist’s detonation will die no matter who they are or what their creed may be. Its effect is therefore not only disproportionate to its supposed cause, but completely dissonant.

Imagine a man who has been fired from his job, whose wife has left him. He enters his former place of employment and opens fire with an assault rifle. He kills people at the water cooler, people at their desks, people working to feed their families, and finally he turns the gun on himself. We may examine his life, his psychology, his circumstances, in the hopes of understanding him. But do we say he has believed rationally? That no man could withstand such suffering—a lost job, a lost wife—without going on a murderous rampage? No: we condemn in the strongest terms the actions of man whose behaviour made sense only in his own mind. So we should think of Islamist suicide terrorists.

(The picture above shows a bus destroyed by a bomber during the 7 July 2005 attacks on London)
[1]There is an important distinction between Islamism, a violent theological and political ideology, and Islam, a largely peaceful religion.

[2]The American government is often criticized for its rhetorical shiftiness. Some critics suggest that combatants in Afghanistan who were once called Freedom Fighters by President Reagan are now called Terrorists by President Bush, and use this claim to cast aspersions on the moral consistency of American foreign policy. Leaving aside the fact that the Afghan mujahideen were of a very different quality than the Arab “mujahideen,” let’s define our terms this way: a freedom fighter would use violence exclusively against military installations, uniformed soldiers, or political figures (not every person who commissions such action is a “freedom fighter”), while a terrorist uses violence against civilians.