Thursday, January 17, 2008

Suicide Bombing: Just Another Kind of Bombing?

So I was listening to CBC this morning and the Current was continuing a discussion (it's mail day) about suicide bombing: causes, etc. Some comments I agreed with, some I didn't. But what struck me was how odd it is that we spend so much time analyzing the technique of suicide bombing (remember I do think it is a rational tactic). Why do we treat it so differently than, say, aerial bombing, such as by the US in Iraq or Israel in the Occupied Territories?

Well, lets think about this for a moment. (And of course, first I need to make the requisite disclaimer: I do not condone suicide bombing, or civilian-targeting violence on the part of either terrorists or governments.)

What is the difference between a bomb that falls from the airplane of a conventional army and a bomb that is meant to explode while still attached to a body? Why does the second attract such complete and vehement denunciation (just watch what kind of comments this post gets) while the first elicits barely a comment?

Here are some possibilities:
A) Certainty of death. The person responsible for exploding the bomb will only maybe die in the first case, but will almost surely die in the second. Does this explain the completely different responses? I think not. After all, both are equally willing to kill for their causes. And if someone is willing to die for a cause (which is nothing new), that's his or her business, is it not?

B) Type of perpetrators. A soldier employed by the state in a conventional army is clearly different than a fighter in an unconventional force, so the violence perpetrated by the former must be treated differently than the latter. I think this is partially true, but is not a sufficient explanation. See, if it is not the technique that matters, but the actors, then any techniques employed by any non-state actors should be denounced as vociferously as suicide bombing. There are enough examples in recent history to prove that this is plainly not the case. (Not to mention that it is crazy to think that violence committed by a state is somehow more justifiable than violence committed by non-state actors, especially when you consider a state with no legitimacy - Iraq, Afghanistan - or no state at all - Palestine?)

C) Type of victims. We are often reminded that suicide bombers often kill civilians, something completely worthy of censure. But aerial bombardment is so efficient at killing civilians, it is a bit ridiculous to even raise this point.

D) Or is it that suicide bombing is nearly the only weapon left among certain dispossessed groups, who have almost no other techniques left at their disposal? For instance, the Palestinians have tried nonviolence, they have tried political solutions, and without an army or weapons, there are few military options, aside from rock throwing or homemade bombs with low-tech means of delivery. In other words, these people can't opt for airstrikes and other high-tech forms of killing. Unfortunately for the imperial powers and colonial occupiers who wish for the end of resistance (as of course all imperial powers do), it turns out to be a weapon that is nearly impossible to prevent from being used. In some situations, like the Palestinian/Israeli situation, I think this explanation has some validity.

I think a lot of it has also to be blamed on propaganda, perpetuated by an uncritical media that has bought into the clash of civilizations model. We (of the rational, normal, enlightened West) would never consider strapping bombs to our bodies and setting them off in a public place (we pay people to do our killing for us). Therefore, there must be something pathological about their culture/religion/part of the world.

I'm mostly just thinking out loud here. I'd be curious to hear other thoughts on this. Preferably non-frothing-at-the-mouth types.


The Mound of Sound said...

I think we place suicide bombers in a special place because they're genuinely unstoppable. You can shoot down an enemy plane or bring hostile soldiers under fire but the suicide bomber walks among us and, until the instant the bomb is detonated, is accepted as one of us. He doesn't just attack our lives but insinuates himself (or herself) in the midst of us first. We allow him to close with us, which I guess means we're required to cooperate to a degree with our attacker. Besides, blowing yourself to rat shit is just plain freaky, no?

BJ said...

I think B is actually the biggest point. Suicide bombing gets the most coverage, but any tactic these groups use is treated far differently than when used by conventional Western militaries or Israel.

Look at the coverage of the rockets and missiles fired by Hezbollah into Israel compared to the missiles, airstrikes, artillery, and particularly cluster munitions the Israelis fired back.

Our military forces lay mines, while the terrorists plant roadside bombs and IEDs. The language is different even though the tactic is identical.

And even suicide bombings, when carried out by conventional military personnel like the Japanese kamikazes, aren't spoken of in the same terms as when non-state actors carry out similar attacks.

Under the Western model, the state is supposed to have the monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and the worst sanctions have been directed at those groups who tried to use organized violence outside of the state's control or framework. This touches on your point D, because once the state is destroyed, the people aren't supposed to have any avenue of resistance left. At least, none that will be recognized as legitimate.

That system is falling apart, both in places like the Middle East where the state model was an import never fully accepted in the first place, and in the West, due to acts like the Bush administration's reliance and empowerment of mercenary outfits like Blackwater, a private army whose operations are outside state control.

Red Jenny said...

Good points, both. Usually when I post on this kind of thing I get a lot more.. um.. negative comments.

MOS, I agree with your point about the suicide bomber insinuating into our lives. Makes me think of the red scare and the invasion of the body snatchers type films. Much easier when the bad guys are easily identifiable by uniform or skin colour. We like everything neatly arranged so we don't have to think too much. That person looks like me, so I can strike up a conversation, and that person looks different, so I better keep her out of my kid's school.

Besides, blowing yourself to rat shit is just plain freaky, no? I dunno. Suicide is astonishingly common, and usually we think it is sad not freaky. Murder-suicides don't create the same kind of hysteria as suicide bombers...

BJ, I think this is probably the closest to the truth. But think about the difference in reaction when you speak about, say, someone who was part of the resistance in Fascist Italy. Non-state actors, insurgents, yet held in high regard... And, as you point out, Blackwater is a non-state actor, but I guess its ok because they are on our side, and we know we are the good guys, right?

Under The Hood said...

I'm not so sure that there are that many suicide bombers.

Start with the assumption that, no matter how bad life is, most people will hang in there for a little while longer.

Start too with the assumption that a great many people are impoverished, and sure would like to earn a few dollars ferrying a car from here to there.

If I were a terrorist cell organiser backed by money, I'd seek out the poor, and offer them $20 to drive this vehicle from here to there. The driver would not know that there were explosives under the seat, or in the suitcases, and the setup might be detonated by an accomplice nearby with a cell phone.

Once the driver is dead, how can you prove or show that it was suicide?