A Special Place in Hell: The cult of suicide, the culture of failure

Suicide is the ultimate pornography.

We cannot look away, it hits too deep in the human imagination. Perhaps that is because suicide constitutes the ultimate mystery. Anxious to know why a suicide takes the decision, we can only ask those who fail at it. Those who succeed at it, remain precisely as indecipherable as death itself.

In the lexicon of suicide, there are few acts more obscenely pornographic than human bombs who target the innocent and the uninvolved.

And there is this element of perversity as well: where the Palestinian national movement is concerned, the effect of suicide bombing has been nothing short of catastrophic.

The shahid bomber, soiling the name of Islam as he acts in the name of Allah, has soiled the name of Palestine as no one else, draining the Palestinian people of the abundant reservoir of international good will that their cause and their plight enjoyed for decades.


In the process, the bomber plays directly into the hands of those he or she hates the most, in particular, the settlers and the Jewish hard right.

Targeting, again and again, the heart of Tel Aviv, the very stronghold of Israeli sympathy for a Palestinian state and for withdrawal from the territories, the suicide bomber functions as the best possible proof of the rightist argument that Palestinians’ aim is for all of the Holy Land, not just the West Bank and Gaza.

Were Hamas so intimately associated with the development and ideology of suicide bombing, it would likely be in a much better position to provide for its constituents, now suffering a concentric financial quarentine, with Israel the inner ring and the international community – and quick-to-promise, slow-to-fork-over Muslim donor states – on the periphery.

Hundreds of suicide bombings, and hundreds more attempts later, the question remains. Why do they do it?


To judge from a recent MIT study of the phenomenon, one of the explanations is arrestingly simple:

It’s a morale booster for the folks back home.

A suicide bombing “makes the [Palestinian] camp happy,” Nichole Argo, a doctoral candidate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the study on bombers, told the Daily Star of Lebanon this month, quoting her research interviewees.


“I believe[d] the operation would hurt the enemy,” said a 19-year-old would-be bomber interviewed by Argo. “Also, [a] successful mission greatly influences society. It raises the morale of the people; they are happy, they feel strong.”

Another prominent explanation is the concept of bombing as a means of Palestinian self-defense, a them picked up by Hamas last week after an Islamic Jihad suicide bomber attacked a felafel and shawarma stand in Tel Aviv, killing nine people and wounded dozens, three of critically, including a 16-year-old American tourist.

“Curiously,” the Star wrote, “many of her interviewees acknowledged that their actions often hurt Palestinians by bringing Israeli reprisal. Still, they claim it is worth it, for emotional effects as much as strategy.

According to Argo, “What the bombers say is, ‘I did it to deter [the Israelis]. They need to feel our pain. If they feel our pain, they won’t hurt us again.'”

But of course we will. And we will hurt them precisely because the bomber bombed. And it will be our pretext for any number of additional measures for which large numbers of Palestinians will suffer. And the world will let us, because the world, having been attacked in Bali and Moscow and in Iraqi mosques, and in Madrid and London and Lower Manhattan, no longer has patience for Palestinian bombers, no longer has patience for Palestinian leaders who condone them, and, in the end, no longer has patience for the Palestinian cause.

Suicide bombing is no longer just a cult activity. It is no longer merely a failure. It has become a failure on a monumental scale, the very symbol of the culture of failure that keeps a state of Palestine and idea and not a reality.

Palestinians said early in the intifada that it was suicide bombing that put their cause back on the world map. That may well have been true at the time. What is clear now, however, is that it is suicide bombing that has kept Palestine off the world map. It has, at the same time, markedly shrunk the map of the Palestinian West Bank, by providing the rationale and the defense for the route of the fence that makes the Green Line 1967 border a fading memory.

The political culture of the Palestinians, steeped in naqba [catastrophe], haunted by 1967, furious with intra-Palestinian corruption and misrule, has become a culture of failure which prizes the grand gesture of spectacular futility, whether it is pushing the detonator switch, or refusing to recognize Israel – even as you (Hamas) prepares to petition the Israeli High Court of Justice to allow Hamas legislators to keep their Israeli-issued personal documents.

After all, if partial success, like Oslo or Camp David, is viewed as failure and grounds for armed revolt, why not fail all the way?

After all, if the world has let the Palestinians down, time after time after uncaring, deceitful time, why should Palestinians believe that something as ephemeral as statehood would change that?

The culture of failure has never been more alive and well, thriving as it does on self-pity and the righteous misery of living on the bad end of a double standard.

The fact that we Israelis have our own well-developed sixth sense of victimization comes as no contradiction. Israeli society has more than enough failings of its own to deal with, not to mention ingrained self-pity and genuine world double-standards.

There is a theory, to which many Palestinians subscribe, which holds that Hamas didn’t really want to win the January election, and wouldn’t mind – in fact, would profit immensely in popular support – if it were forced from office by world pressure. They could then re-assume the role of fighting opposition, altruistic social welfare agency, and critic of the foibles of the holders of power.

If that’s their aim, and failure’s their game, their master stroke may have come this week. The new Palestinian interior minister, Said Siyam of Hamas, named Jamal Abu Samhadana, the head of the Popular Resistance Committees, as director general of the police forces in the Interior Ministry.

Not only is the PRC responsible for many of the Qassam attacks and some of the largest-scale bombings of the intifada, Samhadana is believed to have ordered the October 2003 attack on a U.S. convoy in the Gaza Strip, in which three members of a security detail were killed.

Perhaps, in the end, only the Palestinians themselves can prevent a Palestinan state from coming into being. Perhaps, at least in this, they will succeed.

Perhaps it takes the Palestinian Arabs to finally explain the words of the American Jew named Dylan, when he suggested that there is, in fact, no success like failure.

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