Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 7, No. 3, 2008
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Robert J. Lewis
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Mark Goldfarb
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Robert Rotondo
Sylvain Richard
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Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




And I had a feeling
I could be someone, be someone
T. Chapman

For the past 35 years, the Tamil Tigers have been waging a secessionist campaign in northern Sri Lanka. Largely defined by their methods and not objectives (to create an independent Tamil state), they are rightfully regarded as the founding fathers of modern terrorism for having introduced, legitimized and refined the weapon of the suicide bomber. Shortly after its unveiling, because of the missile’s highly sophisticated internal guidance system and undetectability (stealth) features, it quickly became the weapon of choice of especially aggrieved and/or inadequately armed ethnic or religious groups seeking to better establish themselves in the world.

The response to a weapon that can board a bus, enter a school, sip mint tea in a restaurant or shop at the local market has been understandably problematic. To counter the pervasive fear instilled and disproportionate power wielded by suicide bombers and the causes they proxy, governments, on short notice, have had to assemble highly specialized analytical teams for the purpose of isolating in order to immobilize the suicide bomber before he acts and destroys, keeping in mind that even prior to detonation the latter has already destroyed a targeted population’s peace of mind. But terrorist activity continues on a daily basis, forcing the conclusion that providing a reliable profile of the suicide bomber may be next to impossible, in part, because there are simply too many variables at play to know what makes him go tic tic tic -- the telling interval that turns his talk into terror.

At first, it was thought that the typical suicide bomber was a hopelessly dispossessed, uneducated, impoverished non-entity desperate to make something of his life, and therefore easy prey to the allures of “paradise now” prattle, which both Islam and Hinduism offer in overkill. We now know that this early diagnosis was wildly premature, that terrorists come from a wide variety of social and economic backgrounds. As reported by the Times in 2007:

A study of 172 al-Qaeda terrorists conducted four years ago by Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and former CIA case officer in Pakistan, found that 90 per cent came from a relatively stable, secure background.

Three quarters were from middle-class or upper-class families, two thirds went to college and two thirds were professionals or semi-professionals, often engineers, physicians, architects or scientists. The average age for making an active commitment to violent jihad was 26, and three quarters of the terrorists were married, most of them with children.

In other words however desirable it would be for the purposes of tracking and profiling, psychopaths don’t sign up to become suicide bombers.

What astonishingly hasn’t been examined, and for which the ivory entowered academic western mind has not been held accountable, is from what social backgrounds suicide bombers do not come from. A bomber has never been a leader of a country, an elected representative, a rock star, a successful artist, a radio announcer, a TV personality, a famous athlete, actor or model, celebrated scientist, medical researcher or journalist. In fact there has never been a suicide bomber who has been previously in the limelight, a little noted detail which might play big in isolating the actuating impulse that predicts his fatal attraction to his headline grabbing vocation and its post big-bang promises.

Whether he be anonymously living out his days in the dreariness of a sub- Saharan desert village in Algeria, or working in a nondescript lab in Northern England, as soon as the erstwhile cipher declares himself ready to serve as a disposable delivery system for a bomb, his life immediately changes. Overnight, he is relieved of his bland milieu and directionless existence and introduced to historically significant people who would otherwise be inaccessible. As a fledgling member of an elite, secret society with all its rank and privilege, he quickly becomes a person to whom everyone rigorously and reflexively defers. He is then initiated into his highly specialized training as it relates to his world historical mission, all the while his life is brilliantly (teleologically) revealed to him in terms of its political and theological import. When he is declared mission ready, he will star in a video where he explains his life and calling to family, friends and all those who support the cause he at once spearheads and headlines. In short, in his own mind, which is all that matters, thanks to the nurturing and self-validating culture of terrorism, this former non-entity is able to address and satisfy a longing that has haunted him his entire life: the longing to be regarded as an historically significant being.

This longing for significance is as DNA deep as any biological hunger. Deny the urge as we’re encouraged to do through all sorts of sleight of mind and subterfuge (I’m happy with my lot as a welder, a programmer, a taxi operator), our dreams and fantasies betray us even as we learn how to affect a lack of interest or even disdain for the trappings of fame and celebrity. But when crunch time comes, most of us will be seen grovelling around the significant and famous when they come to our little corner of the world, or in the absence of real contact, we will vicariously engineer our own significance via magazine culture and wearing on our skins products significant people are paid to endorse – which make us feel good in our skins. And although we know better -- that neither Gap, Revlon nor Nike (the running shoe that cares) will relieve us of our mediocrity -- our longing for significance is so primordial we have already convinced ourselves that contact, however superficial, with people of significance must mean that we too are significant. Otherwise we wouldn’t be included in any circle of significance. In this sense, like children ‘leaning out for love,’ we lean out for significance, where the urge to be a somebody is so strong and compelling that the manifest gesture need not have any practical purchase on reality.

How else are we to rationally account for the absurdities registered in the Guinness Book of World Records, whose English edition is distributed in 70 different countries, with another 22 editions published in foreign languages?

We are whistle-quick to disassociate ourselves from the preposterousness of Guinness culture, but slow to recognize that we are in varying degrees vaccinated against the shame and embarrassment that would normally discourage the more dubious undertakings, which many of us cannot refuse. To wit:

Matthew Henshaw (Australia) swallowed a non-retractable 15.9 in long sword and then held a sack of potatoes weighing 44 lb 4.96 oz attached to the handle of the sword for five seconds at the studios of Guinness World Records, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, on 16 April 2005.

Kent French is the Guinness record holder for most claps per minute: 721.

Les Stewart from Mudjimba, Australia, holds the world's record of typing all numbers from one to one million in words (not numbers). He began in 1982 and finished with the entry "one million" on November 25, 1998.

David Alexander wore 121 t-shirts to break the world's record of most t-shirts worn at one time.

Notwithstanding whether these examples inspire mimicry or incredulity, if we are to make any advances in reducing the terrorist mind to its signature irreducibles, we must acknowledge that out of this same irrepressible desire for significance the suicide bomber is born, and that his political and theological objectives are merely ploys employed to legitimize the longing.

The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty proposes that we are all seeking a transformative cause or event that will render our lives meaningful (significant). And prior to that, what child hasn’t imagined himself performing heroic (significant) deeds, the kind revealed in children’s literature, adventure cinema or in comic books? Could it be that I am you and you are me and that there’s a bit of the suicide bomber in each and every one of us?

But for all the weapon’s practical success best illustrated by the David and Goliath binary that has the latter not down but bloodied, not all cultures are able to grow crops of suicide bombers. Letting the numbers speak for themselves, Islam and Hinduism show green thumbs while Christianity and Judaism have no thumbs because cultures that encourage the development of reason usually don’t set much practical store in the “paradise now” package, which is essential in persuading the "apocalyptically inspired" bomber to part with his earthly life. None of which explains why the phenomenon of the suicide bomber is only a recent historical development when belief in the afterlife has been part of the fabric of human culture since man became man.

Since the end game is always significance, prior to the revolution in communications that, pace Marshall McLuhan, transformed the world into a global village, the repercussions of heroically blowing oneself up for a cause would have been restricted to a very limited geopolitical area. Today, the suicide bomber’s exploits, within minutes of the deed, are known world-wide, which makes this advent one of the unintended consequences of the communications revolution.

No wonder line-ups for terrorist/suicide bomber training are long, and even if one day we are able to get our hands on a reliable profile of the bomber, there is no quick fix or cure because there are simply too many religiously run-over anonymous entities who cannot resist the temptation to create world reverberating values in mere seconds, where the bigger the bang the greater the significance. And when you factor in the alarming availability of contraband fissionable material, there’s every reason to believe the bangs are only going to get bigger.

Short of learning how to out-think human nature -- the stuff of pipe dreams -- our only viable option is to rewire our natures, which, in this writer’s opinion, should be the first priority of biogenetics, since the urge that informs suicide bomber is not going to disappear gently into the night.

When our jeans become old and worn and leave us unprotected, we buy a new pair. Since our genes now demonstratively leave us vulnerable to what is most lethal and self-destructive in our natures, is there any good argument for not getting down to the urgent task of fitting ourselves with better ones?

Perhaps Heidegger spoke too quickly when he wrote "only God can save us." Taking liberties with Hamlet:

Oh cursed sprite
Pray the geneticists of the world unite
To write human nature right
Before we disappear from site.



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