The Cult of the Suicide Bomber will arguably be one of the most timely, topical and disturbing television documentaries of 2005.
Not only because of its subject matter, which has become all the more urgent since suicide bombings in London in July and more recently in Bali, but as it gives voice to organisations and viewpoints that new anti-terror laws are likely to silence.
Narrated and presented by Robert Baer, it’s a thorough investigation of the “pathological virus of the cult of suicide bombers“, as Baer dramatically puts it.
In a style that is both chillingly detailed and matter-of-fact, it traces the latest wave of suicide attacks from the child martyrs of the Iran-Iraq conflict, via Lebanon’s civil war and the bloody history of Gaza and the West Bank.
Unlike many of the reports that reach our television screens and newspapers these days, this was made in the field, so to speak. It also features families of so-called martyrs, representatives of organisations such as Hezbollah and Hamas and even unsuccessful bombers who thought they were bound for Paradise but have ended up in tiny jail cells in Israel.
Baer speaks Arabic and Farsi, and conducts the interviews himself, often translating as the camera rolls.
Baer resigned from the CIA at the end of 1997. He was a case officer, running agents and spies in places such as Khartoum, Damascus, Beirut and Iraq.
He wrote about his CIA experiences in the book See No Evil and he is the basis of the character George Clooney plays in the new Steven Soderbergh-produced thriller Syriana, whose story about Washington politics and Persian Gulf oil is expected to spark controversy when it opens this month in the US.
His most recent book, Sleeping with the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude, traces the links between Washington and the fiercely divided royal family of Saudi Arabia, which is home to one-quarter of the world’s oil reserves.
Baer had his first experience of a suicide bomb in 1983 when a stolen delivery van loaded with explosives parked beneath the portico of the US embassy in Beirut. Among the 63 people killed were close colleagues.
Despite his wealth of knowledge and experience in this part of the world, Baer says that making the documentary was a sobering and instructive experience.
“My whole view of suicide bombing changed in the course of six weeks. I’d always looked at it as something that could be used to interdict groups, get them arrested, or find out what they’re doing.
“This is much more from a sociological standpoint, and the motivations are absolutely clear,” he says from his home in Colorado.
“What I figured out is that they (suicide bombers) are not individualistic in the way we are in the West. They look at the defence of the tribe, their community, whatever you want to call it. It is an obligation and there’s a limitless supply of these people. Young kids are all ready to die, especially the Hamas people. Gaza is one big prison, and it probably will be forever.”
Baer persuasively argues that the West fails to grasp the motives and nature of suicide bombers and the cult of martyrdom that they fuel.
“They’re people who, misguided or not, are sacrificing themselves for their community. They’re the opposite of cowards,” he says.
“They’re not doing this to get out of bad personal situations or because they’re crazy. None of these people were insane, as you or I would describe insanity. They’re very logical, calculating, disciplined, focused.
“They think they’re under attack and the community is going to collapse if someone doesn’t take action.”
Nor, says Baer, are they necessarily products of radical Islam, claiming that 13 of the suicide bombers that terrified Lebanon during its unrest came from the secular SSNP party.
“You tell that to people here and they say, ‘what are you talking about?’ We completely get it wrong, and the academic books just go through statistics on suicide bombings.”
Baer says the first spate of suicide bombings – the Beirut attack of October 1982 that claimed 241 US marines and the American embassy bombing one year later – should have come as no surprise. Likewise, he’s not surprised that since 2001 suicide attacks have taken place outside the Middle East’s hotspots.
Baer cites disenchantment as the main reason for leaving the CIA. Since then he has joined the anti-war movement. He says because of his background both liberals and conservatives leave him alone. His views seem to find equal measures of support from both sides of politics.
The program has screened in an abbreviated version only on the Discovery Channel in the US, and Baer defends the right to represent the martyrs and their supporters.
“The only way we are going to solve this problem is getting the truth out, on both sides – ultimately that’s the only way of making a difference. We need to talk about what is really driving these people.”
The Cult of the Suicide Bomber screens on Monday at 8.30pm on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
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