In recent weeks, the rapid rise of a new and powerful military weapon—the suicide bomber—has horrified much of the world.
Fanatic Palestinian militants, sometimes even teenage girls, have willingly taken their own lives in order to kill and wound as many Israeli civilians as possible, thereby bringing the terror of war to the Israeli home front for the first time since 1948. Instead of border settlements, Israel’s pizza parlors and nightclubs have now become the front lines of battle.
The shock of this potent terroristic tactic and its primary use by Muslim radicals have led some to suggest that the Islamic faith itself contains unique religious elements enabling or even necessitating this behavior. But there is no evidence for this theory.
Islam has existed for well over a millennium, but until recent years there had never been any significant record of such suicidal attacks or its cultural justification. Although at times Muslim warriors might have risked almost certain death in battle, this was no different than the similar behavior by particularly brave and determined European or American troops. Furthermore, Islam’s blanket prohibition against suicide—though now frequently argued away by nationalistic clerics— is very similar to that of Christianity, and equally absolute.
There have indeed been those societies that glorified suicide, Japan’s being the most notable. Japanese culture and religion have long regarded taking one’s own life, often through particularly painful means, as the proper personal atonement for shame or failure. This culture of suicide had provided the basis for the thousands of kamikaze fighters, whose one-way military missions as human- guided missiles inflicted considerable destruction on allied forces toward the end of the Second World War.
More recently, human suicide bombers have become a ubiquitous force in the endless Sri Lankan civil war, mostly used by the weaker Tamils to inflict destruction upon Sinhalese military units. Similar tactics have spilled over into neighboring India, leading to the assassination of two prime ministers and numerous other political figures. But in this region, the Muslim population has not been involved, with the perpetrators being groups practicing Hinduism, Sikhism, or even Buddhism, and with nationalism rather than religion being the motivating force.
Despite these facts, history’s most famous single case of mass military suicide did indeed occur in the Middle East, and even within easy walking distance of the homes of today’s suicide bombers, but under circumstances quite ironic given the current conflict.
In 73 AD, a thousand Jewish rebels holding out against a besieging Roman army at the fortress of Masada became convinced that their situation was hopeless, and killed themselves and their families down to the youngest infant rather than face the humiliation of Roman captivity. We can be sure that if modern technology had been available, these determined militants would have done their absolute best to explosively take with them as many Roman soldiers and settlers and Jewish collaborators as possible, rather than just passively cut the throats of themselves and their wives and children.
Furthermore, the Jewish rebellion, whose fervent resistance coined the very term “zealot,” did not arise in opposition to an empire attempting to kill them or even displace them from their land, but was motivated by the growing Roman religious and cultural influence over their own Jewish elites and the lack of Jewish national independence. Certainly by the standards of the ancient world, the rule of Rome was a reasonable one.
And although these unhappy events occurred almost two thousand years ago, they do still have a direct connection to our present day conflict. From its founding, the modern state of Israel has always cherished the memory of the doomed defenders of Masada as one of its strongest national military myths, a symbol of Jewish determination to resist to the death against overwhelming odds. Officers newly inducted into the Israeli army take their oath of allegiance at the site of that mass suicide.
Israelis have rightfully called for Palestinian leaders to forcefully denounce today’s suicide bombers, but I suspect that stony silence would greet any foreigner who demanded that the Israelis themselves cease honoring those Jews who chose to massacre their own families rather than survive under Roman domination
Nationalism is a strong and often irrational human emotion, one whose strength and irrationality are magnified as groups become locked in bitter conflict. During such conflict, even the bloodiest examples of suicidal resistance may become untouchable and exalted symbols of national pride.
Certainly, we must do whatever we can to reduce the current bloodshed and end the horrifying attacks upon innocent civilians. But a people and a culture that at one given point in its national struggle may be glorifying suicide bombers is no more bizarre or hopeless than one that continues to glorify the thousand heroic martyrs of Masada.