A few years ago I wrote a piece called ‘yes, americans can understand suicide bombers‘. I knew it would be inflammatory but it didn’t actually get around as much as some other pieces I’ve written. All I did in the article was pick out some choice quotes and sentiments by ‘Westerners’ (‘us’, in other words, not ‘them’) about how seeing one’s loved ones murdered leads to an overwhelming desire for revenge. I guess it was just a drop in the bucket of hundreds of thousands of words spilled on the topic by all kinds of informed and uniformed people. Still, even if the piece had little impact, the topic has remained of interest to me as I await more horrors in different parts of the world.
More recently Naomi Klein wrote a very nice piece on the topic (I’ve had a lot of respect for her for a lot of years, but I have to say I feel she’s just been getting better and better). Naomi was looking at how ‘our’ racism – the simple idea broadcast daily and loudly enough for those who care to see it that some lives are worth more than others – was very helpful to those who would recruit suicide terrorists. I think both of us focused on the anger of the bomber and the sources of that anger, in revenge and in racism.
Robert Pape’s recent book, ‘Dying to Win’ goes further. In it, he discusses the logic of suicide terrorism, not merely the emotions that might motivate it. None of the arguments in Pape’s book will be unfamiliar to antiwar radicals. Pape is a liberal, but if more liberals thought and wrote as clearly as Pape does in this book, things would be better in North America.
Pape compiled a database of all known suicide terrorist attacks (there were 315 of them) between 1980-2003. These were not isolated incidents, he shows, but part of military campaigns with very specific objectives. The campaigns all had a number of things in common. First, they were waged by non-state actors, with significant popular support, targeting stronger opponents. Their targets were ‘democratic’ states (Pape defines the term and uses it consistently, whatever one may think of his definition of ‘democracy’) and their objective was to coerce a stronger state to withdraw occupying troops from the homeland of the attackers. Pape explains the strategic, social, and individual logic of suicide terrorism and uses the data to demonstrate this logic. He disputes the idea that suicide terrorism arises from ‘irrationality’ or springs whole from some religious text.
While Pape frames his entire argument in terms of the US national interest and how to ‘win’ the war on terror, the implications of his argument and his prescriptions are decent and humane. He argues that if America wants to ‘win’, it should remove its troops from West Asia. If it must secure access to energy, it should do so by making friends in the region or, better, developing energy independence. But the strength of the book is not in these prescriptions, but in the data he assembles and the simple and clear way that he summarizes it.
Each new terror attack brings the stupidest and most racist voices to the forefront, calling for measures that will create another turn of a downward spiral. Pape is a real voice of reason. In laying out the strategic logic of suicide terrorism, he shows a way out.
Other good reading: Tanya Reinhart’s latest, on ‘How we left Gaza’. As she always seems to do for me, Tanya clears up something that didn’t make any sense to me. When Sharon announced the ‘withdrawal’ from Gaza, he had no intention of actually withdrawing. So what happened? According to this article, the Americans decided they didn’t want the headache of Palestine while in the midst of an unpopular massacre in Iraq. It’s something a Palestinian friend of mine suggested to me months ago, but I didn’t believe it until I read Tanya’s data.