Suicide Bombers May Be Shocking, but Dying for the Cause Is Not New

Share via

Suicide bombers are morbidly fascinating, but that fascination reveals as much about us as it does about them. While Americans ponder the roots of murderous martyrdom, searching for explanations that fit within their notions of Third World psychology and religion, the Palestinians seem less interested in spiritual inspiration than in practical military innovation. And it seems to be working.

But for now, the dominant view in the United States is that suicide bombing has deep roots in Muslim culture. As Reuel Marc Gerecht, a Middle East expert at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, “Martyrdom--istishhad--is an old and esteemed idea in Islam.” Gerecht traces it to the year 680, when Husayn, the grandson of Muhammad, became “the prince of all martyrs,” scripting into Muslim consciousness “a never-ending passion play.”

Other Americans are simply perplexed. On CNN, Air Force Gen. Richard Myers wondered aloud what made “that beautiful young lady,” Hayat Akhras, 18, decide to “put on a bomb costume” and kill herself and two others in a Jerusalem supermarket March 29.


But maybe the issue is simple: the Palestinians are trying to win, and they are willing to use any tool available, including the flesh-and-blood equivalent of a cruise missile. That is, the Arabs, having proven unable or unwilling to live with the Israelis in peace and, being equally incapable of defeating the Israelis on the “symmetrical” battlefield, have finally found an asymmetrical tactic that works.

One might recall that few people other than the Palestinians cared about Palestinian statehood until the intifada began in 1987, confronting Israel with the downside of continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

Back then, the chief Palestinian weapon was the stone. But that spasm of violence was enough to bring about the Oslo accords of 1993, creating the Palestinian Authority.

The violence in the last 18 months, of course, has been much worse; the big difference has been the wave of suicide bombings. In response, the Israelis started frisking young Palestinian men; in response to that, older men stepped forward to kill and die themselves. And Jan. 27 brought the first female suicide bomber.

But is it proper to think of suicidal terrorists as a military force? Apparently the Palestinians do. And suicidal fighting is nothing new in the region. In the Book of Judges, the Hebrew hero Samson says to himself, “Let me die with the Philistines” and pulls down the enemy temple.

Indeed, there’s a fine line between military heroism and suicide, even in the U.S. What does one say, for example, about the 69th New York volunteer militia during the Civil War--the so-called Irish Brigade--which suffered 75% casualties when it charged Confederate positions at the Battle of Fredericksburg on Dec. 13, 1862?


On other occasions, suicidal sacrifice has brought victory to Americans. On June 4, 1942, at the Battle of Midway, U.S. commanders dispatched 41 obsolete Douglas Devastator torpedo bombers at the Japanese fleet. The lumbering Devastators were easy targets; in the words of aviation historian Walter Boyne, “The American crews knew that they weren’t coming back.”

And in fact, 35 were shot down, without scoring a single hit. But their sacrifice, Boyne notes, was not in vain; the Devastators distracted the Japanese, allowing American dive bombers to sink four enemy aircraft carriers, turning the tide of the Pacific war.

And that’s the point: War is Darwinian competition at its most ferocious--evolve or lose. And while keeping suicide bombers in their arsenal, the Palestinians are evolving new tactics. In February, they blew up two Israeli tanks using mines and fired high-explosive rockets at Israeli targets. On March 3, a single sniper killed 10 Israelis, including seven soldiers, at a West Bank checkpoint--and escaped. And Tuesday, the Palestinians killed 13 Israelis in a West Bank booby trap ambush.

To be sure, the Israelis are inflicting many more casualties. The Palestinians seem prepared to pay any price, even as they raise the price paid by their foe. They think that the Israelis, tiring of their own losses, will soon leave the West Bank. And they’re probably more right than wrong.


James P. Pinkerton writes a column for Newsday in New York. E-mail: