Following every suicide bombing in Iraq, one crucial point is always overlooked. This point is rooted in the confining space of each individual human body. It has to do with the general incommunicability of physical pain. No human language can ever really describe agony. In consequence, the monstrousness of terror-violence – never truly palpable – is generally reduced to an anesthetized inventory of “casualties.”
Important conclusions derive from this stark limitation of grammar and syntax. Of course, everyone who is human has suffered physical pain, and everyone who has suffered knows that bodily anguish not only defies language, but that it is also language-destroying. This inexpressibility of pain can have major political and social outcomes.
In the case of the now daily suicide bombings in Iraq, it stands in the way of fully grasping terror-violence as pure barbarism.
Shielded by the inherent limitations of language, Iraqi suicide bombers are able to present themselves as honorable and even sacred combatants. In fact, these murderers – like their Palestinian counterparts who prey upon Israeli men, women and children – are anything but soldiers or “holy warriors.”
Rather, they are gratuitously destructive criminals, utterly de-sanctified killers who display a perverse commitment to inflict great harm upon innocents solely for harm’s sake.
There is, from the insurgent terrorist’s point of view, no reasonable hope of ever transforming excruciating pain into authentic spiritual or political power. On the contrary, the suicide bomber’s resort to carnage and mayhem will inevitably stiffen even the most conciliatory hearts.
So why, then, do these particular terrorists continue to inflict pain upon hapless civilians, tearing up unprotected bodies without any foreseeable benefit? Have these particular Islamic terrorists now abandoned the usual political playbook of policy advantage? Have they traded in Clausewitz for De Sade?
A partial answer to this question is that Islamic terrorists of every stripe are imprisoned by the remorseless shortfalls of human language. The pain experienced by one human body can never genuinely be shared with another. This is true even if these bodies are closely related by blood and even if the physical distance between them is short.
Although widely unacknowledged, the split between one’s own body and the body of another is always absolute. For reasons that likely have more to do with Darwinian logic than the vagaries of compassion, the “membranes” between our bodies are always stubbornly impermeable.
This split sometimes allows even the most heinous harms to “others” to be viewed dispassionately. The perpetrators and their allies can even accept these harms as a distinctly pardonable form of “justice.”
For suicide bombing terrorists in Iraq, the violent death meted out to others is only an abstraction. As unacceptable expressions of Islam, we hear again and again, their victims’ lack “sacredness.” It follows that murdering these victims is always a proper occasion for celebration.
Physical pain within the human body not only destroys ordinary language, it can actually bring about a visceral reversion to pre-language human sounds – that is, to those primal moans and cries and whispers that are anterior to learned speech.
While the many Iraqi victims of suicide bombing terror writhe agonizingly from the burns and the nails and the screws, neither the global public who bear silent witness nor the screaming murderers themselves can ever begin to experience what is being suffered. This incapacity is, to be sure, not an excuse for the bystanders or for the perpetrators, but it does help to explain why even callous killing and mutilation by terrorists can sometimes be acknowledged with indifference.
The incommunicability of physical pain further amplifies injuries from terrorism by insistently reminding the victims that their suffering is not only intense, but that it is also understated. For the victims there is never an anesthesia strong enough for the pain, but for the murderers the victims’ pain is always anesthetized.
For almost all who shall hear about the latest incendiary attack upon a marketplace in Iraq, the suffering intentionally ignited upon shoppers and other civilians will never be truly felt. And even then, this suffering will flicker for only a moment before it disappears.
It will be years before the “merely wounded” are ever again able to move their own violated bodies beyond measureless boundaries of torment. But newspaper readers and television viewers across the globe will pause only for a moment before proceeding to lunch.
By its very nature, physical pain has no decipherable voice, no touchable referent. When, at last, it finds some dimming sound at all, the listener no longer wants to be bothered. This fellow human, mortal and fragile, wishes pathetically but understandably, to deny his or her own flesh and blood vulnerabilities.
All things move in the midst of death, and the denial of death is surely humankind’s basic preoccupation. As a result, the pain of others is kept at a safe distance, and the horror of that pain is purposefully blunted by language. Suicide bombing terrorists, whether in Iraq or anywhere else are always much worse than they might appear. Like Saddam on the gallows, detached from the pain that he caused so many others, the murderers can even elicit sympathy.
Occasioned by the incommunicability of pain, this underlying problem of justice can never really be “solved.” Nonetheless, the sources of any possible improvement must lie in appreciating the inevitably common experience of personal extinction.
Copyright The Jewish Press, February 23, 2007. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on international law and international relations. He is Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press.