Looked at in a certain way, it's astonishing that Palestinian leaders have not risen up in fury to denounce the poll showing that 76.1% of Palestinians on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank endorse suicide bombing as a way of fighting Israel. Twenty years ago, responsible Palestinians, and their friends abroad, would have called that a vicious libel and condemned the pollsters at the Palestinian Centre for Public Opinion.
But suicide bombing, which much of the world considers insane, now seems acceptable to many Palestinians. Last week the bombings in Israel demonstrated that this technique, far from being weakened by the horrified international response to Sept. 11, remains popular and potent.
For terrorists, its effectiveness overrides moral objections. It became a fact of modern life on Oct. 23, 1983, in Beirut, when suicide bombers from Hezbollah, then an obscure movement backed by Iran, destroyed the barracks of U.S. and French units in a multinational peacekeeping force, killing 241 of the Americans and 58 of the French. Both France and the United States soon withdrew from Lebanon. This made Hezbollah famous and attracted imitators among terrorists elsewhere.
Styles of terrorism spread like infections, leaping borders, religions and ideologies. Suicide terrorism may be the most unsettling style ever invented. It aims to shatter the nerves of the enemy, and sometimes succeeds. Normal people assume that suicide terrorists are crazy, so dealing with them induces the uneasiness we experience when talking to a madman -- but multiplied 1,000 times. Suicide bombing encourages the contemptuous belief that the terrorists have become less than human. Yet it undeniably induces feelings of anxiety and helplessness.
Sept. 11 has been described as a dark fulfillment of Marshall McLuhan's prediction that technology will draw us all into a global village. It was a McLuhan nightmare: a man in a cave using satellite phones to order the destruction of skyscrapers, which the world watched on TV. In a similarly perverse way, the grotesque appeal to young Islamic martyrs unites two impulses that Sigmund Freud saw co-existing in the human spirit, Thanatos, the death wish, and Eros, the sex drive. Someone who has read a little Freud can only nod in rueful recognition at the promise of radical Islamic leaders: die as a hero and scores of virgins will reward you. Was this allegedly religion-based idea the work of a cynical terrorist leader who read that famous atheist, Freud?
The Arab masses, while aware that nothing in Koranic teaching endorses suicide, have been reassured by the view of various clerics that the killers are shahid, or martyrs. Yousef al Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric, typically declared that the events in question are not suicide operations at all: "These are heroic martyrdom operations." It's apparently that easy.
But suicide terrorism doesn't need religious justification. Of the 15 organizations in 12 countries that have used it since 1983, the most enthusiastic are the Tamil Tigers -- and their goal is secular, establishing a Tamil state in Sri Lanka. They are apparently responsible for about two-thirds of the 300 or so suicide bombings across the world in the last 18 years. After watching Hezbollah with admiration, they built a separate suicide organization, the Black Tigers. Last summer their clandestine radio station gave the total of dead Black Tigers as 217.
The Tigers use women, unlike the Islamic radicals. Women carry out roughly a third of their operations, partly because a pregnant-appearing woman may have less trouble getting past security guards than a man. The Black Tigers inspired a powerful film, The Terrorist, which persuasively describes how an indoctrinated killer might seem to herself. Made in the Tamil language in India in 1999, The Terrorist describes with chilling intimacy the life of a beautiful 19-year-old who lives in a terrorist camp, kills an alleged collaborator in cold blood and then gets a chance to die as a bomber.
Santosh Sivan, the director-writer, never names the chosen target (he's called "the VIP") but evokes the story of Dhanu, the bomb-wearing female Tiger who in 1991 killed herself, 16 bystanders, and Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister of India. Malli (played by the radiant Ayesha Dharkar) plans to garland the VIP with flowers, then bow before him as she ignites the explosives wrapped around her waist. Her field officer explains the military importance of suicide: "We know we have a supreme weapon. You're infallible -- a thinking bomb."
To inject tension into his last 30 minutes, and arouse additional sympathy for his main character, Sivan has her discover she's pregnant, which weakens her resolve. She hasn't given a thought to the crowd she's expecting to murder, but the idea of harming her unborn baby disturbs her. That rather illogical resolution demonstrates how much this phenomenon baffles sane people like Santosh Sivan.
What seems astonishing in retrospect is that hardly anyone guessed the implication of the Lebanon bombings when they occurred. We didn't imagine they would turn out to be among the crucial events of the 1980s, like the fall of the Berlin Wall and Tiananmen Square. After mourning those who died in Lebanon, we turned to other matters, mostly ignoring the spread of suicide terrorism across large sections of the world. As Joseph Lelyveld remarked wonderingly in a recent article for The New York Times Magazine, "All that happened when we were looking the other way."