Friday, January 14, 2011

Suicide Bombers, Martyrs, and the Will to Die

It's easy to offer moral condemnations against suicide bombing.  Most of us agree that killing and maiming innocents is a bad thing: absent a few special conditions there's very little support for suicide.  The highly-charged political context makes the subject even touchier.  Some use suicide bombings as evidence of Islam's inherent savagery and barbarism.  Others use it to promote the heroic struggle against Zionists and other infidels.  In their search to explain the phenomenon away with one political cause or another, few have neglected what suicide bombing says about our shared human condition.

("Martyr" here means an individual who chooses to die knowingly and wilfullly for one cause or another.  They may die for religion, politics, ethnic identity, or any other cause which they find important.  This does not imply that their cause is correct: you can die for a bad cause as surely as a good one).

It is also tempting to see martyrdom as the individual sublimated to (or deceived by) a larger group or idea.  Doing so helps minimize act and actor alike. Terrified with the idea that someone might freely choose death, we comfort ourselves with words like "brainwashing" and "fanaticism" by shadowy conspirators.  Yet even the most fanatical brainwashing conspiracies produce comparatively few martyrs. Out of all their peers who experienced the same oppression and heard the same speeches, what inspires the martyr to go down this road?

There are many ways by which one might find a sense of purpose in the world.  Family, job, friends, ethnicity, sexual orientation, musical taste, fashion choices - all these can be used to claim membership in one group or another.  Most who join a group see it as an important part of their lives, not a central part of their identity.  They value its teachings and find solace and support therein.  It becomes a part of their life: it helps them to better function as parents, spouses, employees, and all the other roles which they must play.  But for some that is not enough.  They find no satisfaction in the roles which so engross their fellow congregants, nor do the exterior trappings of their group bring any greater satisfaction.  Because they see nothing worth living for, they choose instead to die.

Without great belief one cannot have great doubt.  There is a deep terror behind the martyr's fervor: it is a fear not of death but of meaninglessness.  Martyrs are keenly aware of all our injustices, excesses, failings and flaws. They want something which will make things right, or at least explain why they went so wrong: they want to know that there is some reason for all this misery.  If they cling tightly to their ideology, it is only because they understand the ramifications of unbelief. They seek a death with meaning, on their own terms, rather than a purposeless, powerless life.