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Jewish World Review April 12, 2002 / Rosh Chodesh Iyar, 5762

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Newsweek puts suicide bombing in perspective | It's good to try to humanize the rising death toll coming from the discos and coffee shops of the Middle East.

It's even better to flesh out the details of the lives of some of the dead - 170-plus innocent Israeli civilians and 60-plus guilty suicide bombers - so that they become more than just numbers on a bloody scorecard.

But is it fair to give equal time/space/ink to the innocent Israeli victim of a suicide bomber and the Palestinian teen-ager who blew her up?

Newsweek does just that this week with "How Two Lives Met in Death," the story of two teen-age girls from opposite sides of the political, social and cultural tracks whose lives crossed for one deadly instant at a Jerusalem grocery store.

It's a common and usually effective literary/journalistic gimmick: pairing up the innocent with the guilty to compare and contrast the disparate, parallel lives they led until they fatefully intersected.

Pulling it off can be tricky, but Newsweek's Joshua Hammer makes it work - and brings a few shards of understanding to a chronically senseless corner of the world.

Hammer tells the story evenhandedly, and without forcing a phony moral equivalency between Rachel Levy, the apolitical 17-year-old who listened to Christina Aguilera, and Ayat al-Akhras, the politicized 18-year-old Palestinian who enlisted in her people's growing cult of martyrdom.

Rachel and Ayat lived only four miles from each other, but their lives couldn't have been more different. Rachel, a typical Israeli teen, lived in an apartment near a sleek shopping mall and had lived in California until she was 8. She died picking up red peppers and herbs for her mother.

Ayat, whose parents had grown up in a tent in a refugee camp, lived in a crowded Palestinian slum boiling with frustration and militancy. She was smart, engaged to be married and was planning to go to college to study journalism. Now her pistol-packing image is her neighborhood's latest black-and-white recruitment poster.

Through their tragic story and a companion piece, "Inside Suicide Inc.," Newsweek is able to show in words and with many great photos how the suicide movement works, how it has gone mainstream and why it will never die out.

Now Palestinians of every class and gender can grow up to become a human bomb and get a free funeral. It's not only considered a noble spiritual and political calling, it is supported by about 80 percent of the population. Plus, family members of martyrs get lifetime health care, pensions and a check from Saddam Hussein for as much as $25,000.

Time covers much of this same turf in "Why Suicide Bombing Is All the Rage." As it points out, the Palestinians didn't invent this terror weapon, which, while morally repugnant, is seen by Palestinians to have been politically effective in bringing America's attention to their cause.

Rachel's and Ayat's deaths, after all, apparently caught the heart of President Bush, the father of two daughters close to their ages. When he recently announced he was sending Secretary of State Colin Powell to Israel to try to stop the killing, the president referred to their young deaths and said they were proof that "the future itself is dying."

JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald