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Suicide bombers as Freedom Fighters
May 18, 2005 2:00 PM   Subscribe

An op-ed in today's New York Times (NYT link) uses a database of all known suicide bomber attacks to argue that (perceived) occupation, and not religious fundamentalism, drives suicide terrorists. Hitchen's latest on Slate seems to argue otherwise.
posted by OmieWise (34 comments total)

 
That's Hitchens'.
posted by OmieWise at 2:01 PM on May 18, 2005


Actually, it should be Snitchens'
posted by Reverend Mykeru at 2:07 PM on May 18, 2005


Ah, that's the drink-soaked former-Trotskyist popinjay I heard about in that other threat. More on topic, I believe suicide terrorists drive themselves - after all, theirs is one of those once-in-a-lifetime jobs a man must do on his own...
posted by nkyad at 2:14 PM on May 18, 2005


You mean it's because they're poor and have no hope for bettering their lives?

No, impossible! If that were true, we'd see senseless violence and criminality among our home-grown American poor, from bootlegging to crack-selling to drive-bys to family farm murder-suicides.

It must be because they are heathens who hate America™!

STFU lib'ruls!
posted by orthogonality at 2:17 PM on May 18, 2005


Hitchen's making his best case for Newspeak 3.0:

In my ears, "insurgent" is a bit like "rebel" or even "revolutionary." There's nothing axiomatically pejorative about it, and some passages of history have made it a term of honor. At a minimum, though, it must mean "rising up." These fascists and hirelings are not rising up, they are stamping back down. It's time for respectable outlets to drop the word, to call things by their right names (Baathist or Bin Ladenist or jihadist would all do in this case), and to stop inventing mysteries where none exist.

Yes, all we need are to stop using the wrong damn words for them, and the problem will go away.
posted by psmealey at 2:17 PM on May 18, 2005


...Some have wondered if the rise of suicide terrorism in Iraq is really such a bad thing for American security. Is it not better to have these killers far away in Iraq rather than here in the United States? Alas, history shows otherwise. The presence of tens of thousands of American combat forces on the Arabian Peninsula after 1990 enabled Al Qaeda to recruit suicide terrorists, who in turn attacked Americans in the region (the African embassy bombings in 1998 and the attack on the destroyer Cole in 2000). The presence of nearly 150,000 American combat troops in Iraq since 2003 can only give suicide terrorism a boost, and the longer this suicide terrorist campaign continues the greater the risk of new attacks in the United States. ...

Thanks, omie--why is it that the news pages of so many papers don't cover this stuff as well as the op-eds?
posted by amberglow at 2:21 PM on May 18, 2005


Was anyone else depressed by the comparative tone of the articles? Without assessing the content, one seemed like a well-reasoned argument... and the other sounded like angry rantings.

Why don't we have actual *debate* anymore?
posted by InnocentBystander at 2:30 PM on May 18, 2005


Hitchens:

In my ears, "insurgent" is a bit like "rebel" or even "revolutionary." There's nothing axiomatically pejorative about it, and some passages of history have made it a term of honor.

In 1986, Hitchens wrote an article in Harper's called "Wanton Acts of Usage" in which he maintained that the word "terrorism" had become meaningless and that it was not, uh, "axiomatically pejorative" any more.
posted by 1016 at 2:38 PM on May 18, 2005


I think that Hitchens has a right to be appalled that journalists are still writing about "The Mystery of the Insurgency" when in actuality they are explaining their motives repeatedly and loudly. They wish to ingite a civil war in Iraq and a war between Shiites and Sunnis. I for one love Hitchens' righteousness - you can almost see the spittle on the screen.

They keep telling us what they are like and what they want. But do we ever listen? Nah. For them, it must be like talking to the wall.

Just because nobody has any idea how to stop a massive movement of incredibly violent, religious fanatics hell-bent on destroying everything that surrounds them (and spare me the comparisons to Bush/religious right), it doesn't mean it's a "mystery", it only means that we don't know what to do about it.
posted by billysumday at 2:38 PM on May 18, 2005


The most recent suicide bombing in Tel Aviv (in February) occurred just blocks from my hotel, so I walked over ot the site just about 45 minutes after it took place. Very surreal experience. And the most prominent experience I've had of the news media making things worse as they raped the event for all of the drama it was worth...

I've posted the photos I took of the bombing aftermath on my personal website.

After witnessing this, I've done much reading about suicide bombings in Israel. And I've also put together a map of suicide bombings in Tel Aviv that have happened in the last five years. There's a very, very clear geographic trend.
posted by chasing at 2:56 PM on May 18, 2005


It also seems like a mistake to compare suicide bombers from different countries and also from different decades. Wouldn't the motivations of a suicide bomber in Lebanon in 1982 be different than one in Iraq in 2005? Even if they could be umbrellaed under "Israel/America is Satan," there are still very great differences.
posted by billysumday at 3:01 PM on May 18, 2005


Chasing, what is the clear geographic trend? I didn't get it.
posted by chaz at 3:17 PM on May 18, 2005


Well, they all either happened at a beachside bar or club, at the old bus station, or on the road between the two areas. None in Jaffa. None in the business downtown.

Sorry -- the scope of the map is just of donwtown Tel Aviv, the part of downtown most likely to be frequented by vacationers. So the trend may not be immediately apparent...
posted by chasing at 3:23 PM on May 18, 2005


chaz, if you link points 6 and 1 you get a very well-behaved dispersion graphic. On preview, chasing explanation agrees with the well-behaved dispersion we see.
posted by nkyad at 3:27 PM on May 18, 2005


There's a very, very clear geographic trend.

What very clear geographic trend do your eyes see?

It looks to me like the first bombing was adjacent to the last bombing and the fourth bombing. All bombings seem to occur in the region between Ge'ula Beach and the Central Bus Station, but there is no apparent trend.

On preview, it seems like I am not the only one who fails to see any trend. I think that chasing misunderstands the meaning of trend. Trend implies directionality over time, merely localization in space.
posted by tkb at 3:30 PM on May 18, 2005


I simply note that when you use the word "jihadists," it does have a religious implication--that is what Jihad (struggle)means in the Koran. Many of our papers and also public radio broadcasting have annoyued pro-Israelis by calling suicide bombers insurgents or militants rather than terrorist. When Gen Sherman torched Atlanta and other spots in his long march during the Civil War, was he a terrorist, an insurgent, a militant, or a jihadist--or a guy doing his job? I guess it all depends on whose ox is being gored.
posted by Postroad at 3:31 PM on May 18, 2005


um...duh?

turns out that witch hunts were political and most Germans in the 1930s didn't really have deep-seeded feelings of anti-semitism. ideology is almopst always a means, rarely an end.

and as for the second article, neither 'jihadist' nor 'insurgent' is a particularly imformitive or subjective term as they're most commonly used in the media. another good one is "radical cleric," which I've seen thrown aroud a good deal. and we get all indignant when they call us "imperialists" and "godless."
posted by es_de_bah at 3:47 PM on May 18, 2005


From the first link: If not for the world's interest in Persian Gulf oil, the obvious solution might well be simply to abandon the region altogether.

And THAT is why U.S. energy policy is of vital importance. Yeah, there are no easy answers, but the American president (I speak generally here, not of Bush specifically) needs to declare, in Kennedy-like fashion, that we are in a race to achieve energy indepence... then come up with the money to back it up. If the billions spent in Iraq were instead spent on developing alternative energy sources, we'd be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel by now.
</idealism>
posted by Doohickie at 3:54 PM on May 18, 2005


Personally, I think the NYTimes should call them insurgents. And you know why?

Because that's what our own military calls them, you fucking tool.

Speaking of which, has Fox News given up on "Homicide Bombers," yet?
posted by iron chef morimoto at 3:54 PM on May 18, 2005


Why do Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld insist on calling the jihadists insurgents? Why has nobody covered that obvious liberal conspiracy?
posted by iron chef morimoto at 3:58 PM on May 18, 2005


One comment on all this:

Every time things in Iraq get worse, we hear about a new tape from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to explain it. al-Zarqawi is said to be the supreme head of anti-American forces in Iraq.

It just makes me wonder.
posted by graymouser at 4:12 PM on May 18, 2005


Note that the first link is not the story that Hitchens addresses. He's talking about this article.

The NYT article isn't so great, but Hitchens doesn't seem to really add anything. Ignoring the insipid "Democracy-has-super powers" fluff of the NYT article, it says the terrorist factions in Iraq share some immediate goals to cause mayhem, but only al Qaeda seems to have a long-term vision. Yet that vision doesn't really seem to be a guiding force of the Iraqi resistance.

Hitchens merely repeats all that with more focused hate, while acting like it was all his idea in the first place.
posted by fleacircus at 4:12 PM on May 18, 2005


From an Indigo page for Robert Pape's book:

FACT: Suicide terrorism is not primarily a product of Islamic fundamentalism.
FACT: The world’s leading practitioners of suicide terrorism are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka--a secular, Marxist-Leninist group drawn from Hindu families.
FACT: Ninety-five percent of suicide terrorist attacks occur as part of coherent campaigns organized by large militant organizations with significant public support.
FACT: Every suicide terrorist campaign has had a clear goal that is secular and political: to compel a modern democracy to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland.
FACT: Al-Qaeda fits the above pattern. Although Saudi Arabia is not under American military occupation per se, one major objective of al-Qaeda is the expulsion of U.S. troops from the Persian Gulf region, and as a result there have been repeated attacks by terrorists loyal to Osama bin Laden against American troops in Saudi Arabia and the region as a whole.
FACT: Despite their rhetoric, democracies--including the United States--have routinely made concessions to suicide terrorists. Suicide terrorism is on the rise because terrorists have learned that it’s effective.


Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism

This can be seen in present-day Palestine, which, as we shall see, has developed a culture of death within its own civil society. Such epidemics are neither inevitable nor incurable, however, and approval levels for suicide attacks have been known to fluctuate dramatically in response to changes in the political climate. In earlier periods of relative peace and hope in Palestine, such as the early phases of the Oslo peace process, the practice was widely rejected. By contrast, in today's climate of daily Palestinian humiliation by the imposition of omnipresent Israeli roadblocks, with the sealing-off of towns and "preventive liquidation" of militant leaders--which can often result in civilian casualties, including small children and expectant mothers--the majority opinion is more likely to support such tactics. While this general acceptance of suicide bombers and the epidemic spread of their ideology is symptomatic of something hopeless and pathological, it may also be seen as a community-wide message of defiance directed at the oppressor: "See! It's not merely isolated individuals who are willing to sacrifice themselves to strike back at you--we're all ready."

As if to make a mockery of all Israeli defensive measures, Palestinian attackers persist in blowing themselves up in the same place in Jerusalem's city center--near the Sbarro Pizzeria, inside the Sbarro's, in front of the Sbarro's--as if to reinforce the message that no real protection or escape is possible. And the Israeli government's repeated promises to retaliate ever harder, using the full weight of its armed forces to put a stop to the terrorists once and for all, meet with the same response: still more attacks. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, elected to office in the midst of a wave of suicide attacks, vowed to unleash maximum military power, to "let the army win," and to "destroy the infrastructure of terrorism." But during his three years in office, more Israeli civilians have been killed in suicide attacks than ever before. Every assassination of a militant leader of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or the Al-Aqsa Brigades increases rather than diminishes their destructive force.

The attackers, their supporters, and suppliers understand that their enemy is stronger in a conventional military sense. Yet they also believe that their opponent is weaker in a deeper, existential, or spiritual sense. "They have grown soft, the attacker believes; they want to live, and live well, and they are afraid of death." Despite their own obvious military inferiority, the suicide bombers and their allies draw consolation and strength from the assurance of this "cowardice" of the other side. They can only profit by it, of course, if they are willing to repudiate this "cowardice" and the reverence for life which they see as associated with it. This is the rationale for the (for us) irrational abandonment of the natural will to survive, and in its place, the embracing of one's death. When this fearlessness is added to the dynamics of a calculated struggle for power, the old rules of superiority, power, and deterrence simply fall away. Here is the Archimedean point by which we may understand suicide attacks.


That's in this chapter excerpted from My Life Is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing

See also Manufacturing Human Bombs: Strategy, Culture, and Conflict in the Making of Palestinian Suicide Bombers (pdf).
posted by y2karl at 4:35 PM on May 18, 2005


How to enrage Iraq's Sunnis.
posted by homunculus at 4:41 PM on May 18, 2005


Pape's thesis makes perfect sense to me. Self-sacrifice for the good of one's community seems like a natural response to occupation.

There was an almost identical op-ed piece in the NYTimes two or three years ago. I don't know if it was by the same guy, but probably. It's probably foolish to hope he'll get more attention this time.
posted by alms at 4:54 PM on May 18, 2005


Jeez, y2, can't you find a smaller typeface? How will you ever engrave it all on that Archimedean point?
posted by jfuller at 4:58 PM on May 18, 2005


Thanks for the link to the "Manufacturing Human Bombs" paper, y2karl. Long, but highly recommended. The author, Mohammed M. Hafez, studied suicide bombings in the al-Aqsa intifada in detail, and identified three linked factors: individual motivation, organizational objectives, and societal/political context.
posted by russilwvong at 5:02 PM on May 18, 2005


(perceived) occupation, and not religious fundamentalism, drives suicide terrorists

"A chilling, rambling audio file thought to be from the most-wanted man in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, says religious doctrine justifies the killing of innocent Muslims by insurgents."
posted by dhoyt at 7:38 PM on May 18, 2005


The use of the word "insurgent" is an interesting way of framing the conflict. Remember when the phrase of the moment was "former regime loyalist" or "ex-Baathist"?

Since insurgent means "rising in revolt against established authority, especially a government", this means the occupation is the legitimate, established authority.

How the heck did that happen, and says who?

For the most part, these are the same people we were fighting during the invasion.

The role of foreign fighters is vastly overblown (though they do appear over-represented in suicide bombings). In late 1993, just before Saddam was captured, of the 6.000 prisoners in Occupation custody, only five were not proven to be native Iraqis (cite: Anthony Cordesman's report of December 1993). So the bizarre emphasis on people who aren't there is really a continuation of the Saddam=Al Qaeda propaganda used to justify the invasion.

Maybe "insurgent" just means "the side that doesn't have air supremacy," eh?
posted by warbaby at 8:18 PM on May 18, 2005


FACT: The world’s leading practitioners of suicide terrorism are the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka--a secular, Marxist-Leninist group drawn from Hindu families.
posted by y2karl at 8:39 PM on May 18, 2005


Yeah, this is funny--since from a certain perspective, "insurgent" seems like a conservative word chosen to create the impression that the occupation is legitimate and the Iraqi suicide bombers are merely "rebels," not citizens of an occupied country. (Not my opinion, personally, but that's what "insurgent" suggests to me.) Obviously the problem with Hitchens' argument is that there is no 'unmarked' word to use for these people--every word has different meanings and suggests a different political perspective. Still--it's good for folks to be thinking about these things.

Re: is suicide terrorism caused by occupation or religion, the answer is, obviously, both. I've read around in this subject too, and it is (IMO) impossible to separate religious conviction from political conviction in the Middle East. For this reason I actually find "Jihadists" to be, on the whole, a neutral word--I'd guess that most everyone would agree that the Islamist element is more stable, if not more prominent, than the specific political orientation of each individual when you consider Iraqi suicide bombers as a class.
posted by josh at 8:59 PM on May 18, 2005


Ah, but the point appears to be that the resistance and the suicide bombers are not really the same thing at all...
posted by warbaby at 9:59 PM on May 18, 2005


The speaker defends [cluster bombs], saying, "killing of [jihadists] by any method including [aerial bombardment] has been sanctified by many [politicians] even if it meant killing innocent [civilians]."

"This legality has been agreed upon ... so as not to disrupt [freedom]," or "[the war on terror]," the recording says.

/snark

Seriously though, I agree with Juan Cole's verdict that the "insurgents" are the ex-Baathist command/Iraqis.

Foreigners do come to help out (as they are enraged by what's going on and encouraged by various jihad groups) and are promptly packed into car bombs along with some of the more expendable Iraqi fighters.

It's quite clear looking at the attacks that someone is trying to instigage a civil war in Iraq - look at the assasinations and locality of the attacks.

Would America stay if one broke out?
posted by Mossy at 5:07 AM on May 19, 2005


Hitchens has jumped the shark.
posted by bardic at 5:55 AM on May 19, 2005


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