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The politics of suicide and self-sacrifice

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

The operations of so-called suicide bombers against the Israeli occupiers of Palestine have come under severe attack in the West. Yusuf al-Khabbaz compares their nature with the epidemic of suicide sweeping through America and other Western countries.

"I hate myself," Tammy MacIsaac told her therapist, "I hurt a lot. I’m ugly. I’m fat. I’ve always had to buy my friends." Tammy was trying to explain what drove her to a suicide attempt, what drove her to eat a bottle of sleeping pills, curl up with her teddy bear, and cry herself to sleep hoping for an easy death, for an end to her life of pain. "The problem was Tammy felt she was worthless," explained her therapist. Tammy’s friends and family had mixed reactions. Some of her friends said they were surprised; others saw it coming, noting that she "had problems with her life." Her mother told social workers, "I wasn’t surprised, I knew that something had to happen."

Tammy is only one of more than half a million American teenagers who attempt suicide every year. Half a million: that’s 500,000 teenagers annually joining Tammy’s quest. Of that staggering number, about 5,000 actually succeed. The rest survive and come to grips with their lives, or occasionally fail to. Experts try to explain the phenomenon in different ways, some saying that it is caused by depression and mental illness, while others blame it on loss of community, family values and a sense of self-identity.

African-American scholar Cornel West noticed that the teenagers he met while lecturing and teaching were preoccupied with suicide, and he came to the conclusion that "the motivation for suicide the students saw as cogent were more traditional ones: the sheer meaninglessness of human existence, the limited options (especially personal) in the future, and the inability to feel ‘alive.’ For these students, the materialistic rat race of getting and spending, consuming and posturing, yields banal and empty lives." West believes that this propensity to suicide among young Americans also reveals an "explosive nihilism" that is exacerbated by preoccupations with sex as entertainment, which he wonders may be "but a strategy of power elites in the mass media aimed at keeping a lid on such potential nihilistic explosions." In other words, having young people addicted to sex (or drugs) in order to feel more "alive" is better than having them commit suicide.

The suicide rate in America has tripled since the 1970s, alongside a consistent increase in material standards of living. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, by the late 1990s suicide had become the third leading cause of death among American teenagers. However, teenagers are not the only ones committing suicide in America. Although teenagers seem to get more media attention, in actual fact many more American adults commit suicide. And, although women attempt suicide more than men, death by suicide among men is four times greater than among women, and about three quarters of all suicides are by white males. During the 1990s, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide was the eighth leading cause of death among Americans, with 11 out of every 100,000 Americans killing themselves. Although AIDS tended to grab the headlines, twice as many Americans died annually during the 1990s from suicide as from AIDS. Through the 1990s about 30,000 Americans committed suicide each year. About half of the suicides were by self-inflicted gunshot wounds, the preferred method for males, while causal factors range from depression to substance-abuse and unemployment. In most cases, people committing suicide feel that there is nothing to live for, that their lives have no meaning or purpose, that they are worthless. This is the face of suicide in America.

Compare that to the case of Ayat al-Akhras. When she blew herself up in a self-sacrifice operation against her Zionist occupiers in March 2002, the Palestinian teenager knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life and her death. Like all the self-sacrificing fighters in the Palestinian struggle, Ayat al-Akhras walked with crystal clarity to her martyrdom, with a strong sense of meaning and purpose. Like Ayat, other bombers had healthy lives and happy families. Many were college educated, and many in the prime of their lives. Their families are usually surprised when their relatives turn up on the evening news, or when the bulldozers come to demolish their homes. None of the usual indicators of "suicidal behaviour" that one finds in the West are present among self-sacrifice bombers such as Ayat al-Akhras. She was popular, lively among family, and she was a straight-A’s student. And, unlike the American epidemic of suicide, the numbers of deaths by self-sacrifice are comparatively low and occur only in times of war and conflict.

Yet, despite the obvious differences between suicide in the West and self-sacrifice in Palestine, the corporate news media continue to chastise all martyrdom operations as "suicide," and it is common to see ‘experts’ blaming it on the same kinds of problems one finds in the West, such as mental instability and poverty. But it is clear that calling self-sacrifice operations "suicide" is a ploy to dehumanize the martyrs and delegitimize the struggle for which they are willing to die. One could perhaps say that the West is working out its own dilemmas about suicide by using Palestinians as a proxy, that the Americans are projecting their own social problems onto others in an attempt to come to grips with the epidemic of suicide in their own society. But such psychological projections are harder to forgive once one takes a closer look at the history of self-sacrifice as a weapon of war. It is quite possible to find, in many times and places, including the West itself, that self-sacrifice is an acceptable strategy. The confusion lies, perhaps, in linking the clinical definition of suicide with the strategic definition. While it is clear that America is a sick society, with so many people taking their own lives out of despair and loss of sense of purpose, one can also find heroic cases of what would be more aptly termed self-sacrifice military operations in the West and elsewhere.

A recent book by Richard O’Neill, a historian, Suicide Squads,details the history of self-sacrifice in modern warfare, and he treats his topic as one of bravery and heroism. Self-sacrifice operations were an acceptable tactic in the second world war, for example, often called "special attacks" and including phenomena like the famous Japanese kamikaze pilots, who would crash their explosives-laden planes into American warships, as well as less well-known tactics such as midget submarines, human torpedoes, explosive motorboats and small submersibles. These tactics were developed by the British, Italians and Germans, as well as by the Japanese. The kamikazes remain the best-known and most effective example of self-sacrifice in times of war. Although they are frequently disparaged as drug addicts or brainwashed drones, in fact these men went willingly to their deaths with a sense of purpose and self-sacrifice. An American website, described as "a tribute of memory for the bravest among heroes, the hundreds of young men who gave their lives for their country as kamikaze warriors," and dedicated to the heroism of kamikaze pilots, with information on their missions and tactics, was removed from the internet soon after the September 2001 attacks in America.

The kamikazes were created as a special attack force by Admiral Takijiro Onishi after the fall of Saipan in July 1944. Young Japanese men who wished to die for their country volunteered as pilots, and they were specially trained to fly modified fighter planes at very low altitudes. The attacks were methodical and precise, with the first one taking place in the struggle for the Philippines against an American navy ship. The pilots aimed their planes at the central elevator on aircraft-carriers and at the base of the command bridge on large warships. By the next year they had become an important tactic in the war, and in April 1945 alone kamikaze pilots launched 1,400 attacks against the American navy, sinking an estimated 26 ships. More than 2,000 missions targeted American ships near Okinawa, and continued until the Americans used the atomic bomb against civilian targets in Japan, at which point Admiral Onishi took his own life rather than surrender.

The Italian Tenth Light Flotilla used a version of what has been called the "human torpedo" as a manned explosive delivery vehicle during the second world war. The goal was for the pilot to steer his torpedo via a wrist compass toward an enemy ship’s hull, and in the best-case scenario jettison at the last minute, although many pilots died in their attacks. They were responsible for sinking or damaging twenty-seven merchant ships. At Normandy, human torpedo mini-subs destroyed three British ships. The Italian human torpedoes were used with great effect during the war, although their operations were secret until the after war ended.

During the first world war the Italians used "assault units," which were the most elite force in the Italian Army; the Italian word "ardito," used to describe the units, means something like "brave, bold" or "audacious". Organized in the summer of 1917, the assault units were assigned the role of breaking through enemy defences in order to make way for infantry advances. These assault units were given high-risk and very dangerous assignments, and as a result suffered higher casualties than other units. However, volunteers for the assault units received higher pay, better provisions and living quarters, and were granted longer leaves.

Western military history is replete with instances in which a suicidal last stand was chosen in preference to surrender. One could cite, among others, the classic case of Leonidas with his three hundred Spartans at the pass of Thermopylae, or the last American stand at the Alamo, or the American commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne, who vowed to fight to the end during the German counter-attack in the Ardennes in 1944, or the heroic stand of the US Marines on Wake Island in 1941.

All wars and conflicts can have elements of what one could call self-sacrifice operations, irrespective of whether or not one agrees with the cause or not. In South Asia, for example, "suicide squads" have been used with great effect in eliminating political leaders, such as the young woman who killed Indian prime minster Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, or as a tactic in the Tamil national liberation movement in Sri Lanka that killed president Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. During the Sino-Japanese War occurred the famous last stand of China’s "suicide battalion." The theme is in fact so popular that Hollywood film-makers have used it in their war stories, sometimes as an example of bravery and other times to deliver an anti-war message. For example, Stanley Kubricks’ early film Paths of Glory (1957), loosely based upon the long fight for Fort Douamont during the Battle of Verdun, a six-month bloodbath that killed 315,000 French soldiers on the Western front, depicts a regiment of soldiers set up for suicide missions and manipulated by their superiors, who show no regard for their lives. The concept of self-sacrifice "is not specific to any given culture," argues Martha Crenshaw, Wesleyan University terrorism expert.

In some cases "suicide squads" have been used against Muslims, in which case the perpetrators are given the highest military honours. For example, a Philippine lieutenant by the name of Herbert Diaz Dilag was given high citations for "acts of conspicuous courage, gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty" after he led a "suicide squad" from the First Scout Ranger Battalion as part of the Philippine government’s "final option" against the Abu Sayyaf group, who at the time were holding hostages. The "suicide squad" consisted of 14 volunteers who were instructed to clear enemy bunkers. The volunteers left notes and valuables for their families before they departed on their mission: a clear indication that they did not expect to survive.

American strategists are considering similar tactics for the "war on terrorism." Some American military advisors, many of them former Green Beret commandos, themselves famed in fact and fable for undertaking suicide missions, are now advocating the creation of what they call "Dirty Dozen" commando teams, named after the Hollywood film in which a dozen American soldiers undertake a suicide mission against the Nazis, although they hesitate to use the term "suicide teams" because it would be difficult to distinguish them from the image of "suicide bombers" fostered by the American-Zionist media. Instead, the teams would operate under the rubric of "special operations," but with an anticipated very high casualty rate.

Walter Laqueur, a historian, in a study of "suicide terrorism," has observed that "the main weapon of the attack was the dagger, and unless the victim could be found alone and defenceless" early suicide terrorists "were unlikely to return from their missions." Laqueur found that home-made bombs used by nineteenth-century anarchists and Russian revolutionaries "were so unstable that they had to be thrown from a short distance, that is, if they did not explode first in the hands of the attacker," and that "those who went on an attack of this kind were fully aware of the risk and many of them wrote farewell letters to their friends and families."

The most common setting for self-sacrifice operations seems to be the national liberation movement, especially the one that has limited military means at its disposal. Cuban revolutionaries and Vietnamese guerrillas both used the tactic of jumping into enemy vehicles, often those identified as carrying officers, and detonating grenades hidden in their clothes. The national movement for liberation that gets the most media attention today is the struggle for Palestine, and the related struggle in South Lebanon, both having a common enemy. "Suicide bombers" hit the headlines in the early 1980s, because of tactics developed by Hizbullah, and after the zionists exiled 400 Palestinians in southern Lebanon for over a year, the ones that returned brought the new tactics into Palestine. Since then, the Zionists and their American cheerleaders have used every means at their disposal to portray such actions as the work of fanatics and mindless murderers.

The accusations are indeed ironic, since the Jewish self-identity is infused with a strong ethos of suicide as a weapon of war and resistance. All Israelis serve in the zionist military for at least two years, and all military personnel make ritual pilgrimages to the ancient mountain fortress known as Masada, where they take an oath that "Masada shall not fall again." As the Masada myth goes, 960 Jews taking refuge in the fort committed mass-suicide to avoid being captured by their Roman persecutors. According to Professor David Roskies, a famous poem based on the event "later inspired the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto," and the mass-suicides at Masada soon become an integral part of the zionist national identity. Recently historians have questioned the veracity of the myth, but historical truth rarely matters when a myth has so intensely pervaded a people’s sense of self-identity. As political scientist Susan Hattis Rolef puts it, the suicide myth of Jewish national identity soon reinforced "the conviction that it is preferable to fight to the end rather than to surrender and acquiesce to the loss of independent statehood."

Always treated in the context of heroism, of Jews fighting to the last and refusing to surrender, the Masada myth is bolstered by another integral part of the Jewish identity, also based on self-sacrifice. Anyone familiar with Biblical stories knows about Samson, who brought down a Roman temple upon himself and his enemies in another act of suicide, this time directed outward toward enemies. A modern-day version of the Biblical story was made plain by the author Seymour Hersh, whose book The Samson Option discusses the real modern possibility of the Israeli military letting loose its nuclear weapons of mass-destruction in a suicidal last stand, if Arab and Muslim armies are ever able to muster the unity to invade Israel. The Jews’ suicide fantasies are a far greater threat to human survival than any lone Palestinian self-sacrifice bomber could ever become. One could say the same thing about the American suicidal Cold War doctrine of "mutually assured destruction."

The selfless courage and clear-minded sense of purpose of the Palestinian self-sacrificing fighters stand in sharp contrast to the selfish cowardice and senseless aggression of the Israeli and American military forces, who cannot fight without assuring themselves a clear advantage with the latest high-tech weapons. While dying in war used to mean something to Americans, after Vietnam the heroic image was tarnished forever. Now, the once-brave American fighting force watch pornographic movies, chase prostitutes, eat burgers and drink beer between their murderous high-altitude bombing raids on civilians in Afghanistan or Iraq, waiting to collect their paychecks, while Israeli soldiers commit suicide from the burden of meaningless colonialism. But rather than face the reality of their own deeply-seated social and psychological problems, the Americans and the zionists chose to rant and rave about "suicide bombers" and "terrorism", as they watch their own dreams and fantasies turn to nightmare.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 21

Shawwal 27, 14232003-01-01

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