Madeleine Bunting, whose columns continue to slop across the opinion pages of the Guardian, writes what is little short of an apologia for suicide bombing in yesterday's edition. It begins from this characteristically off-centre question, inspired, supposedly, by the currency of the phenomenon:
The rate of suicide bombings - the seemingly endless supply of people prepared to blow themselves up - leaves a western audience utterly bewildered. What kind of psychology motivates people to such violent extremes? The incomprehension prompts revulsion that this form of warfare is historically unprecedented and reveals a peculiar, aberrant irrationality - a kind of inhuman madness. All too quickly, Islam is blamed for deluding its believers into martyrdom with promises of 72 virgins... [and so forth]The revulsion is quite simple to explain: many people do just feel revulsion at a policy of deliberately blowing up the innocent more or less at random, killing some, maiming others, leaving them with horrific injuries, and yet others bereft and grieving. This Madeleine Bunting on one level knows perfectly well, since she would have no difficulty with the concept if those deliberately targeting the innocent were, let us say, the US military and not... well, some other people. Equally, when she says that 'suicide bombings still profoundly outrage western sensibility' (oh, tut!) and laments 'our outraged incomprehension of suicide bombing', she might have saved herself the trouble of this by the reflection that outrage is a quite proper moral response to mass murder, and there is a meaning of 'incomprehension' in which this, too, is appropriate, for the word can signify simply the refusal to accept and the refusal to make excuses.
Even when she skates around the place of genuine moral identification here, Bunting can't quite reach it:
It is [the] particular combination of individual motivation to kill oneself and the cold ruthlessness to stand among the people one is going to kill before detonating oneself which is hardest to understand.I wouldn't myself think that 'stand[ing] among the people one is going to kill' is the key thing - as if the bombers of civilians on a bus or in a bar, or of children on their way to school, would gain moral points with us if only they planted the bomb and then took off to save their own lives. I would guess that for many the death of a suicide bomber doesn't in fact make the atrocity, or the horror, of his or her act any worse than it otherwise would be.
Be this as it may, the task Bunting sets herself is to supply a deeper understanding, and to that end we are given simply everything: a radicalised generation in Muslim countries; suicide bombing as an effective tactic against superior US military forces; and that it is the powerful who determine how such events are understood, so that we validate Soviet pilots flying suicide missions against bridges in WWII but not Japanese kamikazes in the same conflict or 'Islamist militants' now. (Notice the casual elision there, in which suicide missions against bridges are smoothly set beside what contemporary suicide bombers do.) And we are given that the idea of 'suicide to serve a set of beliefs is... deeply rooted in history'; and Roman republicanism, Christian martyrdom, 'using your death to bear witness to a cause, without killing others [my emphasis]... [as] when a Buddhist monk set himself on fire in protest against the oppression of Buddhism in Vietnam', and, finally, a 'sense of humiliation and the need to avenge honour'.
These [you see] are concepts which are very difficult for westerners living largely comfortable lives to grasp. Honour is meaningless to us; we have replaced it with a preoccupation with status and self-fulfilment... [N]othing can trump our dedication to the good life of consumer capitalism, and certainly not any system of abstract beliefs. Not having experienced the desperation of oppression, we have little purchase on the extremism it might engender.Except, of course, the good Madeleine, she does grasp all this (for is she not explaining it here to us?), whether because she has herself experienced the desperation of oppression or only because she has the superior insight of her kind. But what Bunting seemingly fails to grasp is that not one of her factors of supposed explanation addresses the thing she really needs to address about suicide bombing, namely, why moral revulsion isn't the right response to the deliberate murder and injury of innocent people in furtherance of a political cause. For it is sacrificing them: depriving them of, or wrecking, their lives, as a mere instrumentality towards some putatively desirable end, which is sometimes remote, sometimes, even, impossible to achieve. It is a crime against those so sacrificed, a crime under international law, and a crime against humanity by codes and conventions now universally recognized.
If you want a convenient contrast with Madeleine Bunting on suicide bombing, you could do worse than to read Naomi Klein, also in yesterday's Guardian. Klein, too, is writing about an activity that falls under the heading of crimes against humanity. She's writing about torture. And like Bunting she's offering an explanation: torture is used, she says, because it spreads fear, because of how effective it is in doing that. It's not often that I agree with Naomi Klein, but in this case she is to be applauded for writing about torture, even in seeking to explain its use, in a straightforwardly condemnatory voice and without any hand-wringing of the kind Madeleine Bunting employs in trying to shift us from our revulsion, our outraged Western sensibility. It's the contrast between understanding while condemning, and 'understanding' to muddy the waters, to condone. But what could possibly account for the difference?