Suicide Killings and Political Power

December 25, 2002

Suicide Killings and Political Power

 Political power, wrote John Locke, depends on the ability to inflict serious punishment for disobedience.

 Political power, wrote John Locke, depends on the ability to inflict serious punishment for disobedience. It's that simple. The U.S. is the world's strongest nation because it has the ability to back its policies with credible military threats. The Israelis dominate the Middle East for similar reasons. Locke's insight is based on a fundamental truism: people place a high premium on their lives; most of us, most of the time, would rather live than die. Therefore, we tend to defer to those who have the ability to put us in mortal danger.

Every so often we are reminded of the limitations of this argument. This happens when 19 generally well-to-do Saudis and Egyptians fly airplanes into American landmarks, or when Palestinian teenage girls strap explosives to their bodies and blow themselves up in Israeli supermarkets. Of course, Islamic militants did not invent suicide killings. Samson is said to have screamed ‘let my soul perish with the Philistines' before he brought down the building upon himself and his captors. Achilles clearheadedly chose death by the hands of the Trojans, when he insisted on avenging his beloved Patroklos. Scores of Japanese fighter pilots flew open-eyed into American battle ships during the WW II naval campaigns.

Suicide killers are immune to political power. As lovers of death they cannot be threatened or deterred. This is why our military reactions to such attacks are accompanied by a strange, sinking feeling. We know something has to be done but we also know it most likely won't work. Operations such as those carried out by the allies in Afghanistan and the Israelis in the West Bank might be politically necessary, but they have slim chances of deflecting further attacks.

The bin Ladens and Sheik Yassins of the world call the political structures we take for granted into question. We see nation states as the axiom of international reality, but we are being threatened by something that is neither a nation nor a state. We respond in the only way we know, by attacking another nation (or entity) determined to have supported the terrorists. But a score of nagging questions continue to haunt us: could it be that we are engaged in shadow boxing? That our military might is ill suited to deal with the new circumstances? That the nation state itself was only relevant as long as the main sources of danger to it were other nation states?

Such doubts suggest that suicide attacks represent a strategic rather than tactical peril to the west. They endanger not only individual lives but also the political and international environment as we know it. Several possibilities for addressing this threat present themselves. The first involves the employment of overwhelming and undiscriminating force. The Americans bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki after kamikaze raids made it clear that only an unimaginably devastating blow might break the Japanese resolve. Such a reaction seems out of the question today. For one thing, terrorists cannot always be easily affiliated with a specific host nation. For another, the amount of civilian casualties in such an attack would not allow the west to maintain even a shred of moral legitimacy in its struggle.

The second possibility is to throw money at the problem. Lately, discussions of a Marshall plan for Afghanistan and the Palestinian Authority have abounded. This approach is extremely limited. Post-World War II Europe was susceptible to such plans because there was, despite all the bloodshed and carnage, a great deal of cultural commonality between the rival sides. The combatants may have been very busy killing each other during the war years, but they also emanated from two thousand years of shared culture to which they could all relate. It was against the background of this culture that the creation of new democratic and legal institutions took place. This commonality is missing in the current context.

For once, rather than drowning our enemies in blood or cash, we should pause and try to figure out who they really are: where they sleep, what they eat, what they see from their windows. Our defense forces can put a cruise missile through a door, or destroy an armored convoy driving at night without lights; but they are hardly capable of reading an Arab newspaper or making sense of a street corner conversation. An army of Arab speakers and readers might be just as useful to us as a fleet of jets or drones. The key for coming to grips with the cult of death that has engulfed our rivals lies in understanding what it is about us that enrages the average person on the street. Such knowledge cannot be obtained from an altitude of 30,000 feet or from Pentagon command rooms. It might be terribly time consuming. It will probably show few immediately cashable political results. Nevertheless there is no other way of comprehending how it could be that while we are so afraid of dying, our foes became scared of living.

Ajume Wingo is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Senior Fellow at

the McCormack Institute's Center for Democracy and Development, University

of Massachusetts Boston. His book, Veil Politics in Liberal Democratic States, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press (September 2003). Nir Eisikovits, an Israeli attorney getting a Ph.D. in philosophy at Boston University, is a captain in the Israeli reserves. He is writing his dissertation on inter-group reconciliation.