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Jewish World Review Jan. 2, 2003/ 28 Teves, 5763

Suzanne Fields

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Profiles in perverted courage | Today's the day to test our New Year's resolutions - from the ridiculous to the sublime, from getting into shape to shaping a better world. (By this time next week, most of the resolution will have dissolved.) We draw hope from life and the sustaining values to do no harm to ourselves and others. So, it's difficult for most of us to imagine the demons and devils driving young men and women who plot their own deaths, pushed by an ideology that teaches that perverse can be heroic, who are animated by the Ghoulish Rule that killing others as they kill themselves will redeem their cause in heaven. (Some heaven.)

We know them as suicide bombers, but suicide is not exactly the correct use of that word. By most definitions suicide is 'uncoerced' self-killing. Suicide bombers, though not coerced in the sense of being dragged kicking and screaming to self-immolation, are nevertheless pushed by potent propaganda that glorifies death over life, propaganda that makes it clear that their lives are more meaningful through murder than by acts of devotion to the living.

This is puzzling to the civilized world, but we may soon get a little understanding into the nature of the suicide bomber. Because it is the No. 1 target of suicide bombing, Israel has collected a pool of failed suicide bombers, who were arrested on their eve of destruction. Israeli interrogators and psychologists have begun the first in-depth study of suicide-bomber psychology. Psychiatric researchers have interviewed 20 men and women and will interview still more. These are "clear-cut" cases of people who were caught with explosives taped to their bodies on their way to a target.

Most had previously put their "final testaments " on videotape. How much of this terrorist mentality is imbedded in Islam and how much is derived from embittered political ideology is much debated by students of theology, but no matter what the Koran says, the men who enlist suicide bombers in a spiritual conspiracy of murder are demagogues of death, dispatching the vulnerable young to do what they won't do themselves. These demogogues prey on the soft spots, often persuading the impressionable young to avenge the death of a friend or relative. Handlers exploit weakness and vulnerability, naivete and inability to ask the hard question: "Why me and not you?"

Until now most terrorists have been squeezed for information about operations, missions and targets, rather than motivation and psychology. The failed bombers in Israeli jails mostly hate Israel, but their psychological profiles will interest authorities in other countries on the growing list of targets of terrorists. These are terrorists carefully nurtured, with public celebrations and cash to surviving families, by Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority and the Islamic terrorist organizations that thrive in those places.

The psychological profilers could usefully examine suicide notes and poems found on the hard drive of an al-Qaeda computer seized by U.S.-backed troops in Kabul a year ago. "By the time you receive this I will be in the craws of birds, G-d willing, after performing a martyrdom operation against the land of infidels," Faisal al Yusuf, a 26-year-old computer programmer from Saudi Arabia, wrote to his wife.

Fortunately for the rest of us, that didn't happen and he's still free of the "craws of birds." His longest composition, a joint letter written with a fellow traveler and analyzed by the Wall Street Journal, reveals a mix of nihilism, rage and gushing sentimentality as both men appeal to their mothers to understand: "Our bodies have left you, not out of indifference but out of love." The messages on the computer offer a wealth of material for the Freudians and the debaters of nature vs. nurture, and it shows a striking similarity to the mentality fostered in Japan for the kamikaze pilots in the last months of World War II. The first kamikaze pilots were young and educated and saw themselves as human sacrifices to G-d and country, appealing to their families for understanding. The ranks of the college-educated kamikazes were soon depleted, and the Japanese recruited pilots with much less education.

The Japanese public schools of that era, like many schools that are training grounds for Islamist terrorists today, were drenched in the propaganda of achieving virtue through the sacrificing of life. Unlike the Islamist human bombs, the kamikazes were promised no virgins in the afterlife, but were told over and over that they would find in death an eternal happiness. One pilot, who was turned down as a kamikaze because he had a wife and children, returned home to find that his wife had killed herself and their two children, age two and four, to free her husband to do what he needed to do.

He flew to his death five months later.

Such is death that can be not proud.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS