Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Tracey Barnett: Suicide bombers follow a morality of their own

When her third son died during a terrorist action, bereaved mother Umm Nidal Farhat prepared boxes of halva and chocolates and handed them out to his friends.

"At first I did not cry. I said, 'Allah Akbar', and bowed in gratitude. The truth is I was ashamed to say, 'Allah, help me in my tragedy', because I consider this a blessing, not a tragedy," she told Egypt's Dream2 TV.

She was proud that her son broke into an Israeli settlement and spent 22 minutes going from room to room killing 10 and injuring 23 until he ran out of ammunition.

If civilians get in the way, "these are war necessities", she said.

"We cannot stop sacrificing just because we feel pain. My children are the most precious thing in my life. That is why I sacrificed them for a greater cause - for Allah."

She has 10 sons and will sacrifice them all if Allah deems it, "even if it costs me 100 sons".

Female suicide bomber Hanadi Jaradat's mother feels differently. She lost a daughter and a son.

"If I had known, would I have let my daughter die? I already sacrificed one child, would I sacrifice another? Even if they offered you all of Palestine, you would rather give it all up than lose your son," she told Al-Jazeera TV.

"If you had known, what would you have said to her?" the interviewer asked.

"I would not have let her go. I would have tied her up. I would have locked her in her room and stayed with her for an entire year."

Meet the new mothers of "martyrs". We in the West can't touch the relentless passion, commitment and effectiveness their children are bringing to the ways of war.

Whether we like it or not, "terrorist" and "martyr" have become bastard synonyms. Decades have passed since terrorism and suicide bombing were aberrant individual acts by those on the margins.

Turn on television in the Arab world today and you don't have to look far for a culture nurturing martyrdom that we never get to see.

There's Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: "Is there art that is more beautiful, more divine and more eternal than the art of martyrdom?" (Channel 1, Iran); a Yemen cleric on how Yemenite women should reach out to their Palestinian suicide bomber sisters (Yemen TV); or a Lebanese information minister on martyrdom as an "art" that creates a "strategic balance" (NBN, Lebanon).

There are music videos, a national holiday and even children's animated cartoons all honouring the sanctity of what we would call a terrorist act.

Frightening? You bet. They are breaking all our rules:

War should be fought between soldiers. Involving innocent civilians is wrong. A soldier's goal is to live, not die, right?

But their moral surety is crashing head on into ours.

They argue they are using the most effective weapon of war - their lives - against a larger power.

There are two sides to this bloody tale and we're afraid to admit it.

Why is it so incendiary in our culture even to suggest they are ready to die for what they perceive as the greater good? We are both working from a moral imperative. Each of us can point to a holy reference that justifies our moral stance.

The reason we dismiss terrorism is because they aren't killing in the manner that the West kills. Who is to be applauded here for moral supremacy?

Because their methods are repugnant to us, it is easy to forget that suicide bombers in Iraq, Israel, Chechnya, Sri Lanka - or even London - are fighting a war for what they see as occupation of their homeland.

In Slate magazine, Fred Kaplan cites three new academic studies - diversely from America, Israel and one commissioned by Saudi Arabia - that independently say the same thing.

These young men - and now more increasingly women - are not blowing themselves up for some grand pan-Islamic rhetoric. They are doing this to resist what they see as foreign occupation of their homeland.

Does that make the killing of innocent civilians any more morally palatable to us? We in the West scream "no" without hesitation. To us the image of Iran's 40,000-strong Special Unit of Martyr Seekers marching with explosive packs around their waists and holding detonators is the stuff of sci-fi nightmares.

If we begin to see terrorism for what it is - a freshman entry into the arsenal of war - that doesn't mean we're likely to get any closer to holding hands and singing Kumbaya together anytime soon.

What it does mean is that as citizens, as voters, we can be asking our Western governments to see the bigger political picture and recognise that terrorism is a terrible symptom of a larger political disease.

It is our instinct to see the terrorist act itself as an inflammatory catalyst. But there is a dead end to our indignation. Effective governments can create a response that pushes past that.

Constructing policy based on immediate incitement is itself an act of political suicide. George Bush did it and now everybody is losing.

Sadly, the sheer effectiveness of suicide bombers is now battling for cultural credibility for an entire region of the world - and slowly winning.

Terrorism may be just a snapshot of our time, an ugly freeze-frame of war today. But perhaps the greater dirty truth is that the lines of morality in war may have forever changed.

And that is just about as scary as handing out halva and chocolates for murder.

* Tracey Barnett is an American journalist working in Auckland.

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