The "suicide bomber" is a contradiction in terms. Animated by the overriding wish to conquer personal death - to live forever amidst seventy-two virgins and rivers of honey - this homicidal terrorist sees absolutely nothing suicidal about his wilful murder of defenseless Israeli civilians. For him, the "death" that he plans so meticulously to suffer is merely a momentary inconvenience on his fiery propulsion into heaven, a markedly temporary annoyance on his bloodsoaked road to immortality.
What can we learn from this paradox, from a "suicide" that does not intend to end the bomber's life, but rather to extend it? For Israel, which now struggles against Palestinian terrorism (Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PLO, it makes no difference) with nary a hint of real understanding, the essential lesson is this: Recognize that your adversary is not heroic and fearless, but exactly the opposite. Understand that he is a terrorizing and terrible coward, one so utterly immobilized by existential anxieties of nonbeing that he will do anything - including the killing of other people's infants and children - to prevent his own death. Blowing himself up with explosives to ensure his personal survival, he wants all the world to believe that he has embarked upon suicidal operations ("military operations," in the words of Arafat ally and Hamas leader Abdel-Aziz Rantisi) when, in reality, the prospect of real self-sacrifice is altogether beyond his comprehension. Were he to believe even for a moment that his "suicide" were really an exit from all life this Arab terrorist would resist, frantically and completely, every invitation to "martyrdom."
The "suicide bomber" is fully convinced that in destroying Jews he has prevented his own death. Killing Jews offers him an unparalleled feeling of relief, of the very greatest power any human being can enjoy, of immunity from personal mortality. The insufferable death fear of his ego is lessened by the sacrifice of the infidel Jew; it is through the bombing of Jewish women and children that he buys himself free from the penalty of ever being killed. What is more, he knows beyond a shadow of doubt that after executing this sacrifice literally millions of other Muslims will proudly raise their heads over the newest field of Jewish corpses, smile broadly into the sun, and reaffirm God's greatness to all the world.
For Israel there is little point to deterring would-be suicide bombers from terrorist operations with threats of death - threats which are received not only without apprehension, but, expectedly, with a delirious joy and collective ecstasy. No, to deter the "suicide bomber," Israel must now offer the prospective murderer the compelling threat of authentic suicide, of the knowledge that his explosion of Jewish bodies will bring not a prompt entry into paradise but only an irreversible slide into the eternal darkness, into oblivion, into death.
There is another idea that Israel must quickly understand. The young Palestinian male who seeks the "martyrdom" of a "suicide bomber" is presently at a loss for any alternative validation of his maleness and his personhood. Now dependent altogether upon community esteem, he is unable to do anything else that could conceivably bring to him the same measure of deference, nay reverence, that so reliably accompanies what he so erroneously calls "suicide."
As a crowd-centered being, the Islamic suicide bomber is fully unfolded as a soldier of God and The Prophet only by dispensing with independent thought. Made complete through the sacrifice of the despised other - of the Jew whose continued existence challenges his own longing for eternal life - he comes truly to life only through the deliverance of death. To create Palestine from the dismembered body of the Jewish State, a body consciously attritted and tormented by a so-called "Peace Process," the "suicide bomber's" homicides must always masquerade as suicide.
What is Israel to do? Violence and the sacred are inseparable, but Israel, it seems, must now think in terms of desacrilizing the "suicide- bomber," of convincing this would-be shatterer of innocents that God's promise will not follow his explosive logic and that his bombs will lead him not to paradise but to the grave. Can this desacrilization be accomplished by Israeli politicians? Of course not! It will have to originate among Islamic holy men themselves; yet, they are hardly motivated in this direction.
Should Israel target and kill terrorist leaders? For what purpose? The terrorist threat now faced by Israel resembles the mythic Hydra, a monster of many heads which was difficult to kill because every time one head was struck, by Hercules, two new ones arose. No, there are far too many terrorists to kill. For Israel, effective counterterrorism must lie in very different directions.
There is only one way to cope more or less successfully with the "suicide bomber." He can never be convinced that destroying Jews is not a purposeful and amply rewarded sacrifice to God. Nor can he ever be convinced that greater public esteem than that accorded to a "suicide bomber" is granted for any other form of human activity. As for assassination of terrorists, to be really effective it would have to become genocidal.
What is the correct strategy for Israel? "O my soul," says the poet Pindar, "do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible." Unable to turn the "suicide bomber" from his all consuming aspiration to cheat death by killing and from his impatience with possibility, Israel now has little choice but to do everything operationally possible to reduce terrorist opportunity to murder Israelis. In the end, this means recognizing an incontestable Israeli imperative to abrogate the Oslo Accords, those authentically suicidal (for Israel) agreements which inflame the "suicide bomber" and sustain his hope for a radiant future that rewards doubly. Granting life everlasting to the killer while simultaneously bringing death to the hated Jew, this altogether plausible future contains a catastrophic war distilled from the bomber's paradoxical vision of suicide. Drowning the ceremony of innocence once and for all, this future wherein terrorist death fears are muted by murder must not be allowed to happen.
LOUIS RENE BERES was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) IS A professor of International Law, Department of Political Science, Purdue University and is the author of many books and articles dealing with international terrorism. During October 1997 he will lecture in Ireland on "The Legal Meaning of Terrorism for the Military Commander." Last October Professor Beres lectured at King's College, London, on terrorist dangers to Israel. In November he will speak at the JFK Special Warfare Center (U.S. Special Forces) on the risks of WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) terrorism against the United States. E-MAIL: BERES@POLSCI.PURDUE.EDU