Terrorism is not always what it seems. When it involves suicide bombing in Iraq or Israel, it often has little if anything to do with war or politics. Rather, its truest meanings are rooted in distinctly private expressions of fear, dissatisfaction, cowardice and loathing. In no particular order, these personal feelings are an all-consuming fear of death (to be relieved for would-be “martyrs” by an ironclad promise of immortality); an unfulfilled wish for intense pleasure; a hideously un-heroic joy drawn from the targeting of “others;” and a religiously-nurtured hatred of “apostates” and “infidels.”
To be sure, the truest meanings of suicide-bombing terrorism are not discoverable in declarations, charters, and covenants or in assorted Arab/Islamic movement diatribes. They are rooted far more deeply in the enlarged suffering of sacrificial victims; in the unending pain that bores grotesquely within the impermeable space of each tormented human body. In large measure, these deeper meanings are the product of a violation that is always spawned by physical pain’s undeniable particularity.
No human language can ever really describe agony. This means that the real monstrousness of suicide terror-violence can never be understood or felt by others. It can never be reduced to any measurable inventory of casualties. Above all, it is incommunicable.
My readers in The Jewish Press will already understand that Arab/Islamic terrorism is a form of religious sacrifice, and that the deeper human meanings of suicide-bombing terror are obscured and anesthetized by the mainstream daily news. Human feelings of pain are also excised from this news because of the media’s inherent limitations. Such excision is not caused by error or dishonesty. It is, after all, through no fault of the media that human grammar and syntax can never reliably communicate suffering.
Everyone who is human has suffered physical pain, and everyone who has suffered understands that bodily anguish not only defies language, but that it is also language-destroying. This sheer inexpressibility of pain, although neither political nor social, can still have critical political and social outcomes. Ironically, in the case of suicide bombings, it generally stands in the way of recognizing terror-violence as inexcusable. Manifestations of this impediment can be seen in the widespread celebration of terrorists as “freedom-fighters.” No level of terrorist barbarism, it seems, can yet convince people generally that such violence is always wrong. But the ends can never justify the means. Even in Europe and parts of the United States, the incommunicability of pain often contributes to a twisted view of terrorists as legitimate opponents of “occupation” and/or as “liberators” seeking “self-determination.” Needless to say, such a perverse view is especially fashionable in universities.
It is largely because they are shielded by the irremediable limitations of language that Arab/Islamic suicide-bombers are now routinely able to present themselves as honorable armed combatants. In fact and in law, of course, these murderers are anything but authentic soldiers. They are merely fearful and gratuitously destructive criminals, killers who combine a decreasingly rare species of cowardice with a self-satisfying commitment to inflict harm.
It is time to understand a primary truth of terrorism. For the most part, suicide bombing in the Arab/Islamic world has literally nothing to do with victory or defeat. There is, from the insurgent terrorist’s point of view, absolutely no reasonable hope of transforming excruciating victim pain into authentic terrorist power. On the contrary, the suicide bomber either already knows that his or her resort to carnage and mayhem will inevitably stiffen even the most conciliatory hearts, or simply doesn’t care.
So why, then, do these particular terrorists continue to inflict pain upon hapless innocents, tearing up unprotected bodies without any foreseeable strategic benefit? Have these suicide bombers now abandoned the usual political playbook of policy advantage? Are their judgments based entirely upon irrepressible passions?
Suicide terrorists are imprisoned by the remorseless shortfalls of human language, but also by the palpably cherished voluptuousness of “sacred violence.” Suicide-bombers prepare for their missions of pain because of the incomparable ecstasy they expect to receive. In essence, this ecstasy from the execution of a presumed religious obligation is an exact reciprocal of the suffering to be endured by the victims and their families. Although it seems an oxymoron that ecstasy can stem from “suicide,” we must always bear in mind that the so-called martyr’s death is entirely brief and temporary. Such a death is hardly a problem. It is only a minor inconvenience.
For suicide bombing terrorists, the violent death meted out to others is always only an abstraction. The victims, we hear again and again, “lack sacredness.” Murdering these contemptible victims is therefore a proper occasion for joy. Nothing less.
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 expanding number of victims of suicide bombing terror writhe agonizingly from the burns and the nails and the screws, neither the “civilized” world publics who bear silent witness nor the screaming murderers themselves can ever begin to experience what is actually being suffered. This incapacity is certainly 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 construed as agreeable.
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 all who shall hear about the latest incendiary attack upon a marketplace or train station or restaurant or school, the suffering that has been intentionally ignited upon civilians will never be truly felt. And even then, this suffering will flicker for only a moment before it disappears. Although it will be years before the “merely wounded” are ever again able to move their own violated bodies beyond immeasurable boundaries of torment, newspaper readers and television viewers across the globe will pause only for a second before moving on to lunch. For them, the torment of others will remain an abstraction.
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 human listener, mortal and fragile, wishes, pathetically but understandably, to deny his or her own flesh and blood vulnerabilities. This trait is not “inhuman” (which is what we would wish), but rather all-too human.
Let us now resolve – my dear readers and I – to make one thing perfectly clear to all who will soon fall within our own personal ambit of influence, conversation and dialogue: suicide bombing terrorists, whether in Iraq or in Israel, are always much worse than they might appear. This operational problem of justice can never really be solved, but the sources of any possible improvement lie deeply in a growing awareness that Arab/Islamic terrorism is not rooted in political ideology or strategic calculation, but in remorselessly violent visions of the sacred. This terrorism, still rendered less objectionable to worldwide publics and media because of the inherent limitations of human language, is nonetheless still unpardonable. It is never defensible under any acceptable standards of human law or morality. Never.
Copyright, The Jewish Press© September 7, 2007. All rights reserved
LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) lectures and publishes widely on international law and international relations. Strategic and Military Affairs columnist for The Jewish Press, he is the author of some of the earliest major books on nuclear war and nuclear terrorism.