An American suicide bomber?

By Hugh Gusterson | January 20, 2010

“As for the Taliban fighters, they not only don’t cherish life, they expend it freely in suicide bombings. It’s difficult to imagine an American suicide bomber,” Washington Post pundit Richard Cohen opined in a recent column. A few columns later Cohen returned to this theme, which clearly matters considerably to him: “There is really no such thing as an American suicide bomber. We don’t extol the bomber and parade his or her children before the TV cameras so that other children will envy them for the death of a parent. This is odd to us. This is chilling to us. This is downright repugnant.” Cohen added, “Maybe we have come to cherish life too much.”

The Cold War turned the entire United States into a suicide bomber rehearsing obsessively for the moment when we would ‘push the button’ and take down millions of our enemies with us. Seen in this light, Americans trained for the biggest suicide bombing mission of all.”

Reading Cohen’s words made me recall a passage written by the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo, my graduate adviser. Rosaldo was classified 1-A for the draft during the Vietnam War while he was doing fieldwork with the Ilongot headhunters of the Philippines. “[The Ilongot] immediately told me not to fight in Vietnam, and they offered to conceal me in their homes. . . . Unthinkingly, I had supposed that headhunters would see my reluctance to serve in the armed forces as a form of cowardice. Instead, they told me that soldiers are men who sell their bodies. Pointedly, they interrogated me: ‘How can a man do as soldiers do and command others to move into the line of fire?’ This act of ordering one’s own men (one’s ‘brothers’) to risk their lives was utterly beyond their moral comprehension.”

Rosaldo’s story reminds us that judgments of what is “repugnant” when it comes to war may vary across cultures and that, while Cohen worries that “we cherish life too much,” the U.S. way of war may seem abhorrent and unnatural in other parts of the world. Thus, the proverbial anthropologist from Mars might wonder, along with British psychoanalyst Jacqueline Rose, why it is, when it comes to judging suicide bombers, that “dropping cluster bombs from the air is not only less repugnant: it is somehow deemed, by Western leaders at least, to be morally superior.” Wondering why suicide bombers attract such scorn in the West, Rose can only say, “Why dying with your victim should be seen as a greater sin than saving yourself is unclear.” She wonders if it has to do with “the unbearable intimacy shared in their final moments by the suicide bomber and her or his victims.”

That anthropologist from Mars might note that many people in the Middle East feel about U.S. drone attacks the way Richard Cohen feels toward suicide bombers. The drone attacks are widely perceived in the Middle East as cowardly, because the drone pilot is killing people on the ground from the safety of an air-conditioned pod in Nevada, where there is no chance that he can be killed by those he is attacking. He has turned combat into hunting. In this regard, the drone is the culmination of a long tradition of colonial war-fighting technologies–going back at least to the machine guns with which British and French colonial soldiers mowed down spear-carrying Africans–that ensure that the “natives” die, in an unfair fight, in considerably larger numbers than the colonial soldiers.

The drone operator is also a mirror image of the suicide bomber in that he too deviates, albeit in the opposite direction, from our paradigmatic image of combat as an encounter between warriors who meet as equals risking the wounding or killing of their own bodies while trying to wound or kill the others’ bodies. The honorable drama of combat lies in the symmetrical willingness of warriors to wager their bodies against each other for a cause. But now, in the words of the anthropologist Talal Asad, in his book On Suicide Bombing, U.S. “soldiers need no longer go to war expecting to die, but only to kill. In itself, this destabilizes the conventional understanding of war as an activity in which human dying and killing are exchanged.” (Asad’s words clearly apply more to drone operators than to foot soldiers on patrol in Afghanistan). While it takes a lot more courage–or desperation–to be a suicide bomber than a drone pilot, suicide bombers and drone pilots each undercut the normative script of combat by depriving their enemies of the chance to kill them in return. (As Asad points out, the state will intervene to prevent a condemned person from committing suicide so that they can be executed instead. It’s somehow essential to the order of things that a person’s body be destroyed by legitimate authority, not by their own hand.)

Just war theory and the laws of war have little to say about either suicide bombers or drone operators. They focus on the proportionality and legality of the means of violence and on the legitimacy of the targets, not on whether the person pushing the button is near or far from his targets or whether he deliberately perishes with them. Thus, while we may feel a visceral revulsion toward suicide bombers, according to just war theory, the main question in judging them is whether they have acted in a just cause, whether they have used a legitimate technology of violence (bombs, good; gas, bad), and whether they have primarily targeted soldiers or civilians. And so, just war theorists would presumably condemn a suicide bomber who blew herself up on a bus in Jerusalem, but not the suicide bomber who killed seven people at a CIA base in Afghanistan. And, Richard Cohen’s own words notwithstanding, it isn’t too hard to imagine him writing a future column extolling the noble sacrifice and just cause of an American who penetrated Al Qaeda and got close enough to Osama bin Laden to give him a taste of his own kamikaze medicine.

Yet we don’t have to imagine hypothetical future scenarios of suicide attacks on bin Laden to see that Cohen is already wrong when he writes, “There is really no such thing as an American suicide bomber.” Leaving aside the epidemic of U.S. “suicide shooters” such as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School in Colorado and Nidal Hasan at Fort Hood in Texas, who shoot others and either kill themselves or expect to be shot, there remains the question of America’s suicidal dance with the biggest bomb of all–the atomic bomb. For decades loyal U.S. soldiers in nuclear missile silos have trained to launch their weapons in the expectation that they would be killed almost immediately afterwards in the ensuing nuclear war. I once interviewed a former special-forces officer who was trained to hike behind enemy lines with a tactical nuclear weapon on his back and place it near an important target. Although the weapon had a timer, he expected to die at ground zero.

If such men were the elite nuclear suicide bombers whose mission was prepared but never carried out, the Cold War turned the whole country into a suicide bomber rehearsing obsessively for the moment when we would “push the button” and take down millions of our enemies with us. Seen in this light, Americans trained for the biggest suicide bombing mission of all.

David Rohde of the New York Times reports that the Taliban have a song with the lyrics, “The Americans have the atomic bomb; we have suicide bombers.” The Taliban presumably mean by this that suicide bombers are their greatest military asset, one that strikes fear into the hearts of their enemies. But there are other points of comparison between suicide bombers and atomic bombs as well and, while the Taliban presumably don’t intend the comparison to call into question the legitimacy of suicide bombing, their lyric surely invites us to take a fresh look at our military and to ask ourselves, in a way that our mainstream pundits have failed to do, how much the U.S. way of war is built upon a concern to “cherish life,” both our own and others’.

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