30 July 2006

Suicide-Bombers, Homicide-Bombers, Suicide-Murderers and Just Plain Murderers

The modern phenomenon of the suicide-bomber is a difficult one to understand, even stranger is the way we look at this extreme military tactic. Why do we deplore the suicide-bomber any more than any other bomber? Why should we? The main, and in fact only reason to deplore any form of bombing or terror attack is that it often targets and inevitably hits innocent people. But how is an aerial bombing-raid that kills thirty people worse than a suicide attack killing just as many? We dismiss suicide-bombing as cowardly, as if exchanging your own life is somehow more cowardly than coldly launching cruise missiles from a safe distance.

We assume a bomb is only “aimed” at the target in the centre of the cross-hair. But bombs do not work like longbows and muskets – when you fire any rocket or detonate any jacket, you target everything within the blast radius. You cannot target a Hezbollah militant surrounded by civilians without targetting the civilians as well. Those who say civilised countries do not target civilians are either naïve or liars and hypocrites. The rules have changed since Alfred Nobel. Now even the most noble, civilised and accurate army cannot fire on combattants without knowingly hitting nearby civilians. Total war is now inevitably the only kind of war, yet we are still afraid to acknowlege that soldiers can no longer exclusively fight soldiers and that if our agenda includes war, it must also include the indiscriminate slaughter of innocents on both sides and the blood of children on our hands. No matter what our pretence, explosives kill indiscriminately, and I make no moral distinction between those that use them in the full knowledge that they will hit innocent people, uniformed or ununiformed soldier, hard or soft target.

What separates the suicide-bomber from the conventional bomber is the ruthless fanaticism. Every bomber of every type is willing to take innocent lives to achieve their aim, whether that is a political aim achieved through terror, or a military aim carried out with total disregard for collateral damage. Every bomber must be so bent on this aim that they are willing to kill indiscriminately for it, but foreign, anonymous lives are always cheap compared to one’s own. Suicide-bombers hate their targets more than they love life. Where the indiscriminate murder of civilians using guided missiles can be carried out at both a physical and emotional distance, the suicide bomber must look his victim in the eye. It is we, the organised armies firing smart-bombs or the taxpayers funding them, that are the cowards. We are just as willing as any suicide-bomber to accept civilian casualties for our goals, just as dismissive of others’ right to life when it conflicts with our agenda, but we cover our eyes and hide behind computerised targeting systems and euphemisms like “pacification”, “collateral damage” or “shock and awe”, while putting ourselves at minimum risk. Not only is the suicide-bombers' sheer bloody-mindedness and disregard for life beyond our comprehension, but it also shows a willingness we cannot match to risk themselves and to confront the horrible consequences of their actions.

However, the principle aspect of suicide-bombing that rightly leads us to condemn it as cowardly is its deliberate use against civilians. This is in no way exclusive to self-destruction, as Madrid, Dresden, Guernica and Mai Lai demonstrated. We do, however, associate the concept of the suicide-bomber with that of asymmetric warfare, something which is again both cowardly and courageous at once. The courage required to attack a much stronger enemy is counteracted by the seemingly cowardly methods necessary for any kind of success – attacks on soft targets, ambushes, hit-and-run and so forth. This is however not a craven act of fear, but a necessary strategy, and so not cowardice in the usual sense. It is also this importance to asymmetric warfare, which will inevitably be the enemy of dominant military powers and the Western world, which fuels the special hatred we have for the suicide-bomber. It the emblem of our enemy, the religious fanatic so filled with hatred for us that he disregards his own life as much as he does our civilians’. We perceive this enemy as so deranged and zealous that negotiation and compromise are impossible, conveniently for governments that wish to frighten us into war, and there is no strategy more closely associated with this enemy than the suicide-bomber.

This is reflected in the often bizarre alternatives to the phrase 'suicide-bomber' that have developed, particularly 'homicide-bomber' and 'suicide-murderer'. The former is perhaps the most indicative of this condition, and came to prominence just after the Madrid train bombings. Though the killers shared suicide-bombers’ agenda and homicidal indifference to innocent lives, they inconveniently did not destroy themselves. Certainly, it was mostly right-of-centre commentators who introduced the phrase 'homicide-bombing', partly because 'bombing' alone failed to express the aim of destroying lives and not property/infrastructure, but mainly because it lacked the same emotional punch, the same link to our Great Satan in the Middle East. 'Suicide-murderer', the preferred term of the avowed liberal Johann Hari also shows how, worryingly, the word 'bomber' has begun to lose its potency. That we need seperate terms for our enemies’ use of high explosives and our own shows the necessary double-standard of a “clash of civilisations”. It is probably no coincidence that both Hari and most users of 'homicide-bomber' were fervently pro-war. Perhaps these new words were a ploy to encourage us to think in binary terms and aid the rush to war. Or perhaps, more likely, the people using them were simply more distanced from the reality of modern warfare, and so less sickened by the word ‘bombing’ alone. All bombing is homicide, and there is precious little distinction between a bomber and a murderer.

The odd psychological effect of suicide-bombing on the population it attacks is perhaps its most dangerous aspect. The perpetrator is now beyond punishment and the thirst for revenge of the victims and their countrymen remains unquenched. Suicide-bombing not only reflects the most ruthless and bigoted side of those behind it, but stimulates the most ruthless and bigoted side of those who consider themselves under attack. In the absence of a living culprit, the desire for vengeance is directed at the innocent people that share the bomber’s religion, country or skin-colour. After the September 11th attacks, American fury was vented on Afghanistan, when the Taliban fell too quickly and Osama escaped, they were quite ready to wreak the remaining vengeance on a country that had had nothing to do with the attacks. The London bombers dead, Britain turned on its own Muslims, sympathising with none and suspecting all. (Despite 99% polled by the Telegraph rejecting the violent destruction of Western society). Suicide bombers, in effectively carrying out their own death sentence, make their innocent countrymen the target for retaliation. Though the responsibility for the murder of civilians lies solely with the murderer, by cluster-bomb or explosive jacket, the suicide-bomber by nature escalates the racist "clashes of civilisations" and entrenches the prejudices that drive them.

Both “terrorist” paramilitaries and State armed forces are quite willing to sacrifice civilians for their cause, the sole difference is whether the deliberate slaughter of innocents advances this cause enough to justify the cost of munitions. If we are to dress total war as just war, we must emphasise the differences between the total war of our enemies, carried out because of a frightening ideology that hates its enemies more than it loves its own life, and our own total war, carried out through sheer homicidal negligence. The chief distinction then is not whether the Great Satan from the desert will sacrifice innocent lives for his cause in a margianally nastier way then we will, but that, at a time when our warfare is safer and safer for its practitioners, he will sacrifice himself. But for the passing child killed in the blast, the distinctions between suicide-bombing and aerial bombardment and between deliberate and collateral damage mean nothing.

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