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The Puzzle Of the Suicide Bomber

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By Anne Applebaum
Wednesday, November 16, 2005

For a woman who recently escaped death, Sajida Rishawi seemed oddly calm during her appearance this week on Jordanian television. Wearing a white headscarf, speaking in a monotone and explaining that "my husband is the one who organized everything, I don't know anything else," she described how she and her husband, an Iraqi linked to the insurgent Abu Musab Zarqawi, had crossed the border of Iraq into Jordan, made their way to Amman, and prepared carefully: "He had two explosive belts. He made me wear one and he wore the other and taught me how to use it, how to pull and control it."

From there, the couple took a taxi to a hotel where "there was a wedding and there were women and children." Her husband stood in one corner, Rishawi stood in another. Her husband pulled his cord. "I tried to detonate and it failed. People fled running and I left running with them." Thirty-eight people died in that blast, mostly Jordanians and Palestinians.

Thanks to the modern miracle of online video links, it is possible to watch Rishawi make that confession, over and over again. You can observe her turning around slowly, showing off her suicide belt. You can listen for a hint of vocal inflection or look for a note of emotion in her face. What you cannot do is learn why she did it.

But perhaps that's not surprising. In the four years since the most famous suicide bombing in history, our explanations of what motivates suicide bombers haven't grown any simpler. Certainly the old stereotype of a suicide bomber as someone ill-educated or illiterate was shattered by the life story of Mohamed Atta, leader of the Sept. 11 plot, who defended a master's thesis in urban planning at his Hamburg university and who spoke German so well that he liked to correct the grammatical mistakes of native speakers. The notion that all suicide bombers are victims of poverty has been overturned too: One of the London bus bombers drove a Mercedes.

Even the cartoon image of the religious fanatic, the crazed young man convinced that he will be welcomed in heaven by a bevy of beautiful virgins, has fallen by the wayside. Rishawi is not the first woman to attempt to blow herself up: Ayat Akhras, an 18-year-old Palestinian girl, detonated an explosive belt at the entrance to a Jerusalem supermarket in 2002. Akhras was not only young and female, she also was relatively secular, on good terms with her family and engaged to be married.

Nor does "trauma" provide a satisfying explanation. According to her relatives, Rishawi was motivated by the deaths of her brothers in Iraq. But thousands of other Iraqi women also have brothers and husbands who have died in the fighting, and they would nevertheless be horrified by the thought of murdering a group of strangers. Ordinary psychological explanations are useful, but they aren't sufficient.

Most broader studies of suicide bombers have come to the same baffling conclusions. Many are wealthy and well-educated. Few are obviously depressed or mentally ill. While most are indeed devoted to a cause, that cause is more likely to be national than religious, and even more likely to involve an injured sense of family or personal honor. Watching Rishawi turning around to reveal the weapons strapped to her body, it occurred to me that this is her 15 minutes of fame, her chance to make her mark on the world. She wanted to do it with smoke, blood and death -- but presumably being featured on CNN and al-Jazeera is a good second best.

By definition, suicide bombers are harder to deter than ordinary criminals. Normal punishments don't work: The execution of Rishawi might serve her ends, creating a new martyr. Normal prevention doesn't work either: After all, she looked just like the other wedding guests. The impossibility of distinguishing between bombers and ordinary people is part of the horror of suicide bombing and adds to the damage of such attacks too. In Iraq, the suicide bombing campaign has made every American look at every Iraqi -- male and female, old and young -- with suspicion.

There is a solution, of course, but it isn't one that can be applied by the American military or even the Jordanian police. To stop the Rishawis of the future, her community -- her family, her compatriots, the Jordanians marching in the streets last week -- must change the culture that celebrates self-immolation and that sick form of honor and pride. If the desire for murderous glory is what makes suicide bombers act as they do, then scorn from all across the Muslim world on whose behalf she thought she was acting is the only lasting deterrent.

applebaumanne@yahoo.com


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