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Western Jihad: Yes, We Have Suicide Bombers, Too, We Just Call Them 'Heroes'

We have our own rich tradition of suicide bombers -- and our own unfortunate tendency to kill civilians in our military campaigns.
 
 
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The actor Will Smith is no one's image of a suicide bomber. With his boyish face, he has often played comic roles. Even as the last man on earth in I Am Legend , he retains a wise-cracking, ironic demeanor. And yet, surrounded by a horde of hyperactive vampires at the end of that film, Smith clasps a live grenade to his chest and throws himself at the enemy in a final burst of heroic sacrifice.

Wait a second: surely that wasn't a suicide bombing. Will Smith wasn't reciting suras from the Koran. He wasn't sporting one of those rising sun headbands that the Japanese kamikaze wore for their suicide missions. He wasn't playing a religious fanatic or a political extremist. Will Smith was the hero of the film. So how could he be a suicide bomber? After all, he's one of us, isn't he?

As it happens, we have our suicide bombers too. "We" are the powerful, developed countries, the ones with an overriding concern for individual liberties and individual lives. "We" form a moral archipelago that encompasses the United States, Europe, Israel, present-day Japan, and occasionally Russia. Whether in real war stories or inspiring vignettes served up in fiction and movies, our lore is full of heroes who sacrifice themselves for motherland, democracy, or simply their band of brothers. Admittedly, these men weren't expecting 72 virgins in paradise and they didn't make film records of their last moments, but our suicidal heroes generally have received just as much praise and recognition as "their" martyrs.

The scholarly work on suicide bombers is large and growing. Most of these studies focus on why those other people do such terrible things, sometimes against their own compatriots but mainly against us. According to the popular view, Shiite or Tamil or Chechen suicide martyrs have a fundamentally different attitude toward life and death.

If, however, we have our own rich tradition of suicide bombers -- and our own unfortunate tendency to kill civilians in our military campaigns -- how different can these attitudes really be?

Western Jihad

In America's first war against Islam, we were the ones who introduced the use of suicide bombers. Indeed, the American seamen who perished in the incident were among the U.S. military's first missing in action.

It was September 4, 1804. The United States was at war with the Barbary pirates along the North African coast. The U.S. Navy was desperate to penetrate the enemy defenses. Commodore Edward Preble, who headed up the Third Mediterranean Squadron, chose an unusual stratagem: sending a booby-trapped U.S.S. Intrepid into the bay at Tripoli, one of the Barbary states of the Ottoman empire, to blow up as many of the enemy's ships as possible. U.S. sailors packed 10,000 pounds of gunpowder into the boat along with 150 shells.

When Lieutenant Richard Sommers, who commanded the vessel, addressed his crew on the eve of the mission, a midshipman recorded his words:

 

"'No man need accompany him, who had not come to the resolution to blow himself up, rather than be captured; and that such was fully his own determination!' Three cheers was the only reply. The gallant crew rose, as a single man, with the resolution yielding up their lives, sooner than surrender to their enemies: while each stepped forth, and begged as a favor, that he might be permitted to apply the match!"

The crew of the boat then guided the Intrepid into the bay at night. So as not to be captured and lose so much valuable gunpowder to the enemy, they chose to blow themselves up with the boat. The explosion didn't do much damage -- at most, one Tripolitan ship went down -- but the crew was killed just as surely as the two men who plowed a ship piled high with explosives into the U.S.S. Cole in the Gulf of Aden nearly 200 years later.

 
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