Beyond The Headlines

Those who think that discussing the psychological profile of suicide bombers is tantamount to excusing them would do well to read this article by Jacqueline Rose in the London Review of Books. It’s a review of two books on the subject: Christoph Reuter’s My Life Is a Weapon: A Modern History of Suicide Bombing and Barbara Victor’s Army of Roses: Inside the World of Palestinian Women Suicide Bombers.

Perhaps, then, the revulsion [to suicide bombing] stems partly from the unbearable intimacy shared in their final moments by the suicide bomber and her or his victims. Suicide bombing is an act of passionate identification – you take the enemy with you in a deadly embrace. As Israel becomes a fortress state and the Palestinians are shut into their enclaves, and there is less and less possibility of contact between the two sides, suicide bombing might be the closest they can get.

Reuter’s book opens with the question of what makes a suicide bomber, and traces its history not just to the late seventies (Iranian kids sent to fight Saddam’s army) but to the thirties, its practioners coming from different religions. Victor’s book, on the other hand, sounds less promising, but not for the reason that Rose suggests.

In this form, empathy can start to look like a cover for prejudice. The Palestinian Zina – anonymous by family request – ‘has a history of problems’, whereas the Israeli Malki Roth, killed by the Sbarro bomb that Zina played her part in planting, was a ‘well-balanced, wholesome teenager’; Rachel Levy, killed in March 2002 by Ayat al-Akhras in a grocery store in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Kiryat Yovel, was finally adjusting to the ‘rhythms of teenage life’. In fact these young Israeli women are living in, and acutely suffering from, a society that encourages them to be blind.

Rose’s accusation that Victor is prejudiced because she presents the female, Palestinian bombers as ‘damaged’ and their female, Israeli victims as ‘wholesome’ misses the point. The problem is that the bombers made a willful decision; in that sense, one could conceivably speak of a profile, look for similarities, and so on. The victims, however, didn’t choose to be where they were. They’re a more disparate group, and so it’s harder to talk about them as having one thing in common, whether ‘wholesome’ or ‘unwholesome.’ The proper approach would have been to compare the perpetrators on both sides, and the victims on both sides, and failing that, I think neither the reviewer nor the book (as it is presented) have anything new to offer.