Deciphering suicide

The hijackers lacked the heroism of martyrs. All they had was the violence

Published September 26, 2001 8:22PM (EDT)

The president insists that we are dealing with an enemy who strikes from the shadows, an enemy who kills and runs for cover. But the hijackers, terrifyingly, left the shadows and struck in full daylight, with the whole world watching. They didn't kill and run for cover but, in killing, killed themselves.

Had the hijackers survived the attack on the World Trade Center, we would now be reserving a large measure of our retribution for them. Timothy McVeigh fled the scene of the Oklahoma City bombing and, whether or not he acted alone, the person we most wanted to catch was McVeigh himself.

The suicide bombers have short-circuited the cry of an eye for an eye. They are beyond the reach of our vengeance now, and so that vengeance has become distinctly second order: We must catch not the murderers but the planners. Consider how quickly the hijackers are beginning to fade from the scene. At first the papers were full of their photographs. But soon another face replaced them -- that of Osama bin Laden. It's as though, by dying, the hijackers have gotten away.

Suicide flows from many sources: despair, anger, mental illness and sometimes even grandiosity. Much has been said of the celestial rewards reserved for holy warriors. But what motivated the terrorists to commit this atrocity had less to do with the next world than with this one. Aside from the sexual pleasures of paradise, a good part of what they were after was self-glory. They wanted to emerge from invisibility, to get even for a hundred slights, to be remembered back home and to prove their manhood by striking against a power that they believe to be a mad elephant loose in the world and trampling it.

I read in the the New York Times the other day that the concept of suicide bombing goes back to the 11th century, having its origins with the Assassins. This keeps it in the Islamic tradition. My friend Edwin Frank, however, pointed out to me that such an act is not unknown in the Old Testament. Samson was an Israelite at a time when the Philistines held sway over Israel. Blinded and made to perform in a house containing 3,000 people, Samson cried: "'Lord God, remember me and strengthen me only this once ... so that with this one act of revenge I may pay back the Philistines for my two eyes.' And Samson grasped the two middle pillars on which the house rested. And he leaned his weight against them, his right hand on one and his left hand on the other. Then Samson said: 'Let me die with the Philistines.'"

President Bush wants to frame the argument around the notion that what is being attacked is our freedom. On CNN Karen Hughes insisted that the terrorists hated the fact that she could work outside the home. We don't help ourselves by oversimplifying the causes of the horror visited on the country on Sept. 11. Was it really an abstraction like freedom the terrorists were lashing out at? Would a 33-year-old Egyptian national give his life to keep American women from working? People do not generally kill themselves in order to change social customs on the other side of the globe. The women's suffrage movement provoked no suicide missions from the Middle East. A number of suffragettes committed suicide themselves, taking no one with them. In their case, as in the self-immolations of Buddhist monks during the Vietnam War, suicide became a heroic act.

With the hijackers it is otherwise. They are seeking no clearly stated political end, only destruction, pain and revenge. They lacked the heroism of martyrs; all they had was the violence. Nevertheless, that many people in the world feel constrained to commit such atrocities is not something we in the West should take lightly. To resort to biblical formulations, to call them "evil-doers" and leave it at that, is to regress to a fundamentalism of our own. For reasons of security as much as anything else, we can't ignore the social and political conditions that brought about this vicious attack. But neither should we be moved to empathy by an act whose barbarity eliminates all possibility of moral suasion.

President Bush dignifies the attack by calling it an assault on freedom. In reality it was nothing so philosophical as that. The hijackers' suicides inspire no admiration from their enemies, only fear. The terrorists operate out of an impoverished moral imagination and so cannot lay claim to justice. If we are scared now -- and we are -- we should take comfort from the fact that the suicide bombers do not understand the power of suicide, and so cannot harness it. There is more to martyrdom than merely dying.

By Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides is the author of the novels "The Virgin Suicides," "Middlesex" and "The Marriage Plot"

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