All suicides kill other people. However isolated the moment, suicide is also always an act of cruelty. Anyone left behind after someone close to them commits, or even attempts, suicide is likely to spend much of the rest of their life wondering whether they themselves have, or should have, survived. Suicide is rarely the singular, definitive act it appears to be. The ego, Freud tells us, turns onto itself the hatred it feels towards the object. But the object is never spared. No one commits suicide, the psychoanalyst Karl Menninger wrote in 1933, unless they experience at once ‘the wish to die, the wish to kill, the wish to be killed’. You can die, but you can’t commit suicide, on your own.
Suicide bombing is most often considered a peculiarly monstrous, indeed inhuman aberration that cannot – or must not – be understood. When the Lib Dem MP Jenny Tonge observed, ‘If I had to live in that situation – and I say that advisedly – I might just consider becoming one myself,’ the Israeli Embassy responded with this statement: ‘We would not expect any human being – and surely not a British MP – to express an understanding of such atrocities.’
Tonge was sacked from her party’s front bench. We can be fairly sure that had she expressed similar understanding of the policy of targeted assassination, or extra-judicial killing, in response to suicide bombings, she would not today be out of a job. The wording she used – ‘If I had to’ – is crucial. She was not sympathising: she was trying to imagine what it was like to be a Palestinian in the Occupied Territories. (She condemned the bombings.)...But perhaps there is a logic here. If the case for war is weak – or non-existent – then the ugliness and guilt of war rise perilously close to the surface of the public mind: war, in Levin’s words, as murder and revenge. In which case, it helps to be able to point to something far worse, preferably from another culture or world, with which no reasonable human being could possibly identify...
Suicide bombing kills far fewer people than conventional warfare; the reactions it provokes must, therefore, reside somewhere other than in the number of the dead. It is, of course, feared as a weapon against which there appears to be no protection, and to which there is no viable response: targeted assassinations simply provoke further retaliation (and Israel’s security wall is already proving incapable of deterring attacks). The horror it inspires cannot, however, be explained in terms of the deliberate targeting of civilians: according to McNamara, 100,000 people were burnt to death at the end of the war in the Allied attack on Tokyo, and in On the Natural History of Destruction, W.G. Sebald describes the ten thousand tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs dropped on the densely populated residential areas of Hamburg in the summer of 1943.
The horror would appear to be associated with the fact that the attacker also dies. Dropping cluster bombs from the air is not only less repugnant: it is somehow deemed, by Western leaders at least, to be morally superior. Why dying with your victim should be seen as a greater sin than saving yourself is unclear. Perhaps, then, the revulsion stems partly from the unbearable intimacy shared in their final moments by the suicide bomber and her or his victims. Suicide bombing is an act of passionate identification – you take the enemy with you in a deadly embrace. As Israel becomes a fortress state and the Palestinians are shut into their enclaves, and there is less and less possibility of contact between the two sides, suicide bombing might be the closest they can get...
...There is one thing that nobody will disagree with: the story of suicide bombing is a story of people driven to extremes. ‘Children who have seen so much inhumanity,’ El-Sarraj states, ‘inevitably come out with inhuman responses.’ We need to find a language that will allow us to recognise why, in a world of inequality and injustice, people are driven to do things that we hate. Without claiming to know too much. Without condescension.
Friday, February 08, 2008
A Rose By Any Other Name Might Smell Differently
Since the suicide bombing phenonemom has begun, yet again, I think we should review again selections from this apologia for it by Jacqueline Rose who teaches at Queen Mary, University of London. Her books include On Not Being Able to Sleep: Psychoanalysis and the Modern World and, most recently, The Question of Zion. This is from a few years back:-