Back in 2002 I confessed that I once thought suicide bombing would be "self-limiting." At the time, I was referring to the Palestinian intifada, which had turned to suicide bombings even though the Palestinians were widely thought to be secular or moderate Muslims. But by February of that year, the number of suicide bombers had exceeded 90 since the Oslo accords of 1993, the most recent being a woman, Wafa Idriss, who was described as anything but a religious zealot -- just someone who had had enough. Since then suicide bombings have become a worldwide daily occurrence, producing an unimaginable slaughter of the innocent. The Muslim world seems to have gone nuts.
Of course, it is not the entire Muslim world we are speaking of, just a portion of it and just a tiny percentage of worldwide Muslims. But the figures for Iraq alone are appalling -- about 400 suicide bombings since the U.S. invasion in March 2003. Even if the number includes a preponderance of foreigners -- Saudis in particular -- it would have been hard at one time to conceive that there were so many people willing to end their own lives, not to mention those of others, particularly children.
In the Western world, suicide is anathema. We often attribute suicide to mental illness -- profound depression, for instance -- and try to deny it even to the terminally ill. And in the Western world, particularly in America, we are wont to attribute our beliefs to others. Everyone wants democracy. Everyone wants jeans and rock music. Everyone values life, particularly one's own. Once again we have learned the hard way that our beliefs are not universally shared.
The London bombings are a particularly frightening reminder that the last frontier for the cultural geographer is the human mind. The alleged suicide bombers were not smuggled into the country from the Islamic world; three of the four had been born in Britain and one on the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Two had infant children. None of the bombers fit a profile. Now, however, they do: the European Muslim. There are 15 million to 20 million of them, about 5 percent of Europe's population, 10 percent of France's. There are bad days coming.
In the TV age, everything is historic -- especially if there's an anchorman on the scene -- but this month there was a truly historic, if only scarcely noticed, anniversary: 60 years since the successful testing of an atomic bomb near Alamogordo, N.M. The next month, August 1945, the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were obliterated. There were, I think, good and sufficient reasons to use the bomb -- some of them based on what, for lack of a better phrase, I'd call Japanese culture. The use of kamikaze pilots who purposely crashed their planes into U.S. warships unnerved Americans. So did the Japanese military ethic of never surrendering, fighting almost literally to the last man.
But the Japanese military was not alone. In the waning days of the battle of Saipan, in 1944, hundreds of civilians killed themselves -- some by jumping off cliffs -- rather than submit to U.S. occupation. To Americans, these and similar actions were downright frightening and a warning of what would happen if the Japanese mainland was invaded. All this set the stage for the use of the atom bomb.
Now we are similarly confronting another enemy that seems so alien it might as well not be considered human. This will particularly be the case if, as some predict, there are additional suicide bombings in Europe and maybe, in due course, in the United States. Then the admirable words of George Bush and Tony Blair, who both have embraced the humanitarian values of mainstream Islam, will be sorely tested. Politicians are sure to demand aggressive profiling, immigration restraints -- a kind of guilty-until-proven-innocent approach to Islamic minorities. Draconian measures will be demanded -- not the A-bomb, of course, because the war against terrorism is not a war for territory, but, as the saying goes, whatever it takes. Terrified and enraged people can be remarkably brutal and illogical. We are at war in Iraq because of terrorist attacks that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with. We were entitled to be angry. But we were obliged to be smart.
Somewhere, in Europe or the United States, suicide bombers are making their plans. We cannot afford to believe otherwise. They have already struck in New York, Washington, London, Madrid, over and over again in Israel and virtually daily in Iraq. They are all Muslims, and they seem to most of us to have lost their humanity. Maybe so. But it will only benefit the suicide bombers if we lose ours in return.