A Self-Destructive Rage; the Suicide Bombers of the Middle East Are Following in a Long and Pointless Tradition

Article excerpt

Byline: MICHAEL BURLEIGH

Making Sense of Suicide Missions edited by Diego Gambetta (OUP, [pounds sterling]25)

SUICIDE missions have an episodic history. The medieval assassins, a Moslem sect, invited death as they came up close and personal with their daggers.

Thousands of tsarist officials and civilians were killed centuries later by anarchist bombers of the type portrayed by Joseph Conrad in The Secret Agent.

How many of us suspected that the novel's maddest bomber - the Professor, his belt filled with dynamite and his palm on a rubber pressure detonator - would assume a beastly salience nearly a century later from Chechnya to Qatar?

During the last year of the war in the Pacific, more than 3,000 Japanese kamikaze pilots crashed into US ships, reminding us of societies in which suicide bears no social or religious stigma, but rather results in a place among the gods. Elements of all these "traditions" are present in the suicide bombers currently confronting 20 or so societies, although the origin of the present wave is very local, and Islam, the religion largely concerned, prohibits suicide.

During the Eighties, the Shia cult of aggressive martyrdom leached, in the form of Hezbollah, from the Iran-Iraq war, where children had been encouraged to run into Iraqi machine guns or minefields, to the civil wars (with external components) that all but wrecked the Lebanon. The simultaneous murder of 513 US and French peacekeepers in Beirut in 1983, announced an end to the era of ( nonsuicidal) aircraft hijackings and the start of a pattern of activity that has spread to many of the world's conflicts and been adopted by secular as well as religious terrorist groups. Between 1980 and 2001, 2,500 people were murdered in such attacks - for the victims did not commit suicide - with a further 3,000 killed on 9/11, and hundreds more blown up in Iraq each month.

Europe has so far been spared this experience, but many of the Saudis who took part in 9/11 were deracinated residents of Hamburg, while Britain recently exported two Islamic suicide bombers to Israel, where Asif Mohammed Hanif of Hounslow murdered three people in a Tel Aviv nightclub, while Omar Khan Sharif drowned in the sea.

Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta and his team seek to explain what motivates suicide missions, a subject of more than academic interest as we nervously eye whoever sits near us on an aircraft or train. …