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On Feeling the Pain of a Bombing Victim

The pain inflicted by the Boston terror bomber or bombers is greater than anything non-victims can ever feel themselves.

Louis Rene Beres

Louis Rene Beres

Following the Boston Marathon bombing, one crucial point will likely remain overlooked. The most loathsome aspect of this or any other terror bombing attack on civilians will always lie in the inexpressibility of physical pain. While all decent people will abhor the idea of bombs expressly directed at the innocent, whether here or in other countries, none will ever be able to process the very deepest horrors of what has been inflicted.

Never.

Human language can never describe such pain. Always, this pain is private and incommunicable. Always, the unique inhumanity of all terror violence must be reduced to a more or less anesthetized inventory of numbered casualties. This reduction will include both the counted fatalities and the “merely wounded.”

Upon reflection, the limiting idea of hard or impenetrable boundaries between humans is not hard to understand. After all, everyone who is human has suffered physical pain. And everyone who has suffered will concur that bodily anguish not only defies language, but is also language-defiling and language-destroying.

Significantly, this inaccessibility of pain, this irremediable privacy of torment, can have markedly wider social and political consequences. For example, in the particular case of recurrent Palestinian terror bombings against Israelis, it has sometimes stood in the way of recognizing such cruel assaults as the visceral expression of sheer jihadist barbarism.

There is never, from the terrorist point of view, any persuasive expectation of being able to transform victims’ pain into influence or power. On the contrary, and also quite predictably, any resort to terrorist carnage and mayhem will stiffen even the most forgiving hearts. So why, then, do terrorists continue to enthusiastically inflict grievous pain upon innocents, gleefully tearing up their unprotected bodies without even a plausible hint of pragmatic benefit?

This is a key question. Are these criminals, whatever their personal and group motives, simply nihilistic, believing in certain distinct patterns of killing for their own sake? Have they merely exchanged one murderous playbook for another, now preferring to trade in Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz, for Bakunin, Fanon, and De Sade?

Here is a partial answer. Recalling that terrorism often is a perverse species of theatre, all terrorists, in precisely the same fashion as their intended audiences, are imprisoned by the stark limitations of language. Even for them, the pain experienced by one human body can never be shared with another. This is the case even if these bodies are closely related by blood, or by any other tangible and usual measures of racial, ethnic, or religious kinship.

In the final analysis, much as we might wish to deny it, the split between one’s own body and the body of another, is always firm and always absolute. Whatever we may be taught about empathy and compassion, the determinative membranes separating our individual bodies, one from the other, ultimately trump every formal instruction. These “membranes,” after all, are stubbornly and irreversibly impermeable.

Sometimes this split may allow even the most heinous infliction of harms to be viewed “objectively.” Here, especially where a fashionably popular political objective is invoked – as in the case of Hamas or Islamic Jihad or Fatah or Hizbullah attacks on Israeli noncombatants – terror bombings can conveniently masquerade as “national liberation.”

For terrorist bombers and their supporters – whether suicide “martyrs” or the more long-distance kinds of killers who employ precision timing devices and who prefer not to die themselves (as was initially the case in Boston) – the violent death that they mete out to their victims is an abstraction. Doctrinally, it is always justified or rationalized, in the name of “political necessity,” or “citizen rights,” or “self-determination,” or “national liberation.” Nothing else needs to be said. Psychologically, if not jurisprudentially, these self-justifications always amount to a full “pardon.”

Physical pain within the human body can destroy not only ordinary language but can also bring about a hideous reversion to pre-language human sounds; that is, to those guttural moans and cries and whispers that are anterior to learned speech. While the victims of terror bombings writhe in agony, from the burns and the nails and the razor blades and the screws (and from shrapnel dipped lasciviously into rat poison), neither the public that must bear witness nor the murderers themselves can ever begin to know the real meaning of what is being suffered.

For the victims, there is no anesthesia strong enough to dull the accumulated pain. But for the observers, however unwitting, the victims’ pain must always remain more or less “anesthetized.”

Most assuredly, though the insistent denial of mortality remains humankind’s most brazenly primal preoccupation, all things must still move in the midst of death. However egregious a specific terrorist bombing attack, the pain of the victims is necessarily kept at a “safe distance” from the audience. The basic horror of that pain is necessarily and permanently blunted by the unalterable shortcomings of language.

Inevitably, though this may not even seem possible after Boston, terrorist bombers will turn out to be much worse than they may first have appeared. Whatever their motives, stated or unstated, and wherever they might choose to discharge their ritualistic harms, they freely commit to a steady sequence of evils from which there is never any authentic hope of escape.

The pain inflicted by the Boston terror bomber or bombers is greater than anything non-victims can ever feel themselves, no matter how close the human connections, or how deep the individual inclinations to empathy. In the end, this generally neglected fact is more important than any other. In the end, any affected child’s cry of despair will be instantly more revealing and urgent than even the most eloquent proclamations of law, or the most subtle calculations of science.

Always, whenever we try to better understand the core meanings of terror-bombing attacks, flowing human tears will reveal deeper kinds of understanding than the most compelling examples of counter-terrorism or the most impressively learned smiles.

About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.


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