On Palm Sunday, suicide bombers detonated themselves at two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt, killing 44 and wounding 126. Undoubtedly, the volunteer “martyrs” thought they were on a mission so holy they were willing to sacrifice their own lives.
Each time this happens, we’re engulfed by a sense of lunacy. What kind of misguided fanatics think God wants massacres of defenseless strangers?
Yet it occurs thousands of times—now and in the deep history of humankind. A couple of months earlier, suicide bombers struck a Sufi temple in Pakistan, killing 90 and wounding 300. Evidently the death volunteers think God wants slaughter of dancing Sufis as well as Christians.
Christians are of course famous for such unholy campaigns—in 1209 at Beziers, France, the papal legate, when asked by the military leaders how to distinguish the Cathars (the “heretics”) from the Catholics, replied, “Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius – Kill them all for the Lord knoweth them that are His.” The Catholic forces took the lives of a reported 20,000 civilians that day, the equivalent to seven 9/11/01 attacks.
Not to mention Hitler’s theft of life from 12 million Jews, communists, disabled, LGBTQ, and other innocents. Or the Allied bombing of civilians from Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, Cologne, Hamburg, Frankfort and many more residential areas. How about the US annihilation of nearly three million Vietnamese, approximately 90 percent of them civilians, often poor unarmed peasants? From the Spanish Inquisition to the Salem witch trials, we humans burn, bomb, stick, shoot and kill so many who have no weapons.
And now jihadis kill civilian Christians, Jews and fellow Muslims. Many radical Islam attacks hit Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. The Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University says 800 suicide bombers killed 5,560 people in 28 nations in 2016 — an all-time-high death toll. In 2015, some 735 martyrs killed 4,370. In 2014, the toll was 937 death volunteers and 4,400 victims, scarcely more than four casualties per martyr.
The so-called “cult of death” has become the driving force of radical Islam. Without self-chosen martyrs, the religio-political movement would have little impetus. With them, it has become the world’s chief cause of bloodshed after the Cold War ended except the under-reported wars in portions of Africa that have seen many more civilians attacked than anywhere.
But what of those who intentionally include themselves in the casualty count? In the final months of World War II, of course, Japanese kamikaze and shimpu attackers were on suicide missions, although one might argue they were in some ways morally superior since they only targeted military in a desperate act of “legitimate” war. Similarly, Vietnamese sappers sacrificed themselves carrying bombs to kill invading American soldiers.
Holy suicide was little known until 1983, when a volunteer truck bomber killed 240 U.S. Marines at a barracks in Lebanon, and another killed 60 at the U.S. Embassy there. Ever since, it has surged into a global curse.
The most maddening aspect is the righteousness felt by the killers, who think they’re serving God, who will reward them with virgin nymphs in heaven. When 19 devout young men committed the historic U.S. attack on Sept. 11, 2001, they left behind a written testimonial saying the “women of paradise” awaited them.
Columnist David Brooks calls suicide martyrdom “the crack cocaine of warfare…. It unleashes the deepest and most addictive human passions — the thirst for vengeance, the desire for religious purity, the longing for earthly glory and eternal salvation.” He said volunteers are promised “dark-eyed virgins in paradise” who will greet them the instant they depart this life.
In some Islamic societies, families express joy when their sons or daughters sacrifice themselves in massacres. Announcements in newspapers, almost like wedding notices, tell of sons happily united with virgins in heaven. The BBC filmed a “paradise camp” where children as young as eight are taught jihad (holy war) and martyrdom.
Columnist Brooks hopes that changing conditions may “allow the frenzy of suicide bombings to burn itself out.” But, so far, the phenomenon isn’t fading.
Ironically, religion is dwindling rapidly in Europe, America, Canada, Japan, Australia and other western democracies, especially among the young. Yet it spurs many young Muslims to kill themselves to kill others. It’s a strange contrast of faith, a gulf between the two civilizations.
Germans have gone to great lengths to face their history, as have Rwandans. American history that includes wiping out Native villages full of noncombatants has never been properly faced. Perhaps the dominant cultures are poor at self-assessment; one hopes we can all learn about our failures as humans and educate for love and friendship, values that are nominally core to all decent beliefs, religious or humanist.
James Haught, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail. Tom H. Hastings directs PeaceVoice.