The Suicide Bombers Lie

As the Middle East sinks deeper into a pit of violence and hatred, otherwise sensible people come to accept profoundly misguided ideas.

One that I have been hearing more and more frequently is the idea that there is something uniquely horrible about "suicide bombings," that whatever the Palestinians' aims, this tactic must be condemned by all decent people. The New York Times fulminates that "only the most bankrupt leadership" could allow such a "macabre, self-delusional act of ruin to pass without anguished condemnation."

The message is clear: while the Israelis have killed far more people than the Palestinians in the recent conflict, they have done so in a civilized manner, while the Palestinian killing has been barbarous. Whatever one may think of the larger claims advanced by either side, this is sick and dangerous thinking, a way of dehumanizing one side in the conflict. It recalls the dehumanizing of the suicidal, wild-eyed kamikazes, whose barbarous tactics justified the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, while the properly civilized German-Americans required no such special treatment. Not to mention the American fliers who dropped atomic bombs on Japanese civilian centers. Obviously, far more people -- virtually all of them civilians -- died in Hiroshima than from all the suicide attacks in history, but not even those of us who consider this a war crime think of the bomber pilots as maddened fanatics.

Let me be clear: there is no viler act of war than to target civilian populations, and the suicide bombers are doing just that. I am only saying that, tragically, most of the civilians killed in this century's wars have died at the hands of uniformed troops of recognized national governments, using modern technologies. When the Times condemns the fact that "there is hardly a Palestinian figure who has made clear that suicide bombing has no place in any struggle worth its name," I am forced to note that few supporters of US military aims have made it clear that, for example, building anti-personnel mines designed to shoot thousands of pellets at chest level that are made of plastic and hence indetectable by x-rays "has no place in any struggle worth its name."

It is in the nature of war, even justifiable war, that many of its tactics are disgusting. To suggest that one's opponents' tactics are uniquely vile is the most common, cliched propaganda, used by virtually all combatants -- but especially those whose moral stance is threatened by the fact that they are doing most of the killing. "Ah yes," one can say, "it is true that we are out-killing them three to one, but the deaths we cause are unavoidable collateral damage, while they are specifically targetting innocent bystanders." It can even sound sensible, this idea that intent is more important than results, unless you are the parents or loved ones of the "collaterally damaged."

The fact is that, tactically speaking, both the suicide bombers and those who wipe out entire neighborhoods with rockets and bulldozers are pursuing their aims by killing and demoralizing civilian populations. The imbalance is not one of virtue, but of power and technology. And, if there is ever going to be peace, both sides will have to face the fact that their enemies are human beings, many with blood on their hands, but not very different from themselves.

Elijah Wald ( is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, Mass.

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