How Far Back Do Suicide Attacks Go?
Mr. Hogeboom is Adjunct Assistant Professor of History, Dowling College, New York.The Western public finds it difficult to understand the idea of the suicide assassin. "How do they get people to willingly do that?" is the question usually asked. The media often cite the promise of Paradise where beautiful virgins will serve such "martyrs". During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Iranian troops would often recruit large groups of young boys to go out over roads or fields suspected of being mined. Around their necks they carried keys which would open the gates of Paradise. The night before the September 11th attacks, Muhammad Atta, the alleged leader of the suicide pilots sent a message to the others that they would meet tomorrow in Paradise.
The idea of the suicide assassin in the Middle East goes back more than a thousand years. During the 11th Century, a Persian scholar of great wealth and charisma founded a fundamentalist Islamic sect called The Assassins. His name was Hasan I Sabah and he operated out of a mountain fortress called Alamut, in northern Persia, or what is today Iran.
Up to that time, Arabs had dominated Islam but by the mid-11th Century a tribe from the East called the Seljuk Turks had begun to take over. Hasan regarded them as enemies of the True Faith and he set out to make war against their leaders by assassination.
One of the few Western accounts of the Assassin sect comes from Marco Polo's book of travels. Polo visited Alamut several centuries later and wrote that Hasan began the practice of recruiting local youths to join his sect. He trained them and disciplined them as fierce fighters who could secretly stalk and kill a victim, even if the victim was well guarded. Then, instead of trying to escape, the assassin would stand his ground and be killed himself. Later, some historians claimed that the term assassin came from the Arab word hashish, which the killers may have taken just before they attacked their victim.
According to Marco Polo, Hasan built a breathtaking secret garden at Alamut, modeled after Muhammad's description of Paradise in The Koran. When it was time for one of his followers to be sent on a mission, Hasan would have him drugged and taken to the secret garden. When the youth woke up, he would find himself in the magnificent garden, surrounded by beautiful flowers and bountiful fruit, with waters of flowing milk and honey, and all served to him by beautiful virgins called houris.
After a day or so, the youth would be drugged again and taken to Hasan. When he awoke, Hasan would tell him that Allah had allowed him to spend some time in Paradise because he had a mission for him. After successfully killing his victim, the youth would then return to Paradise, forever.
The targets of the assassins were not always other Muslims. During the period that European crusaders had established a Latin Kingdom along the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and some of their leaders were similarly targeted. England's King Edward I narrowly escaped assassination while on a crusade to the Middle East, before he became king. In 1197, a crusader leader named Henry of Champagne sought an alliance with the assassins and he visited one of the sect's fortresses. During the course of their discussion, the Grand Master in charge demonstrated the absolute obedience of his followers by ordering two of them to throw themselves off the ramparts of the fortress, which they did without hesitation. Henry quickly concluded the alliance.
Half a century later, a Mongol army led by Hulegu, grandson of Genghis Khan, invaded and conquered much of the region. They attacked and destroyed Alamut, burning all the sect's documents and records. Because of this, historians have had to rely on legends and stories to reconstruct a history of the sect. As a result, The Assassins have become even more mysterious that perhaps they really were. Nevertheless, the idea of suicide killers in the Middle East is still very much with us to this day.
comments powered by Disqus
Judith Ronat - 12/31/2003
I just noticed Willard Hogeboom's piece from October 20th about "how far back do suicide attacks go" and he has it all wrong. I am not a historian, just a poor country shrink. But the earliest suicide attack I know of was Samson in the Bible. Please ask Mr. Hogeboom why he forgot poor Samson.
Wise Sage - 11/11/2003
Innocent civilians? What makes them "innocent"? Those who support the goverment (Israel is supposed to be a democracy, or what exactly is the propaganda today?) are not "innocent"; those who pay taxes are not "innocent" - at least as compared to those who are drafted, who, presumably, you think it is OK to kill.
If you are so worried about the "innocent" dieing, why not worry about the far number of "innocent" Palestinians that are killed (something like 4-1 ratio)? And the vast host of other indignations, sufferings and exploitations the Palestinians are forced to undergo? You may poo-poo that, but if the choice were to live in "terror" in Tel Aviv or in real terror in Genin, I know where I would prefer to go . . . .
I'm sure the Palestinian militants would be much happier to kill Sharon and other political / military leadership than some youth at a pizzeria, but as is typical the leadership surrounds itself with troops and is impossible to get at. Essentially, what the "leaders" do, figuratively, is hold the baby in front of them so an attacker must kill the baby to get to the "leader". They do this by making it easy to kill the baby and impossible to kill the leader, which leaves the aggrieved party with two options: continue to suffer (how many years can you allow land to be stolen, trees to be cut down, economies to be destroyed, wells destroyed, homes destroyed, schools closed, etc. before you tire of that option, which would result in your eventual genocide?) or strike where they can.
Sure it would be best if they did not strike, everyone agrees with that. But it would be even better if they did not have reason to strike.
In terms of killing "innocent" civilians, I think the victory goes to the Jewish Bolsheviks / Lenin - Stalin, the German Nazis / Hitler and the US Democrats / Roosevelt - Johnson. Palestinians are nowhere near the top of the list.
Jonathan Dresner - 10/24/2003
Mr. Livingston writes: "For one thing, the dominant secular mind in the West envisions this life on earth all there is to one's existence values nothing more than life, which is in part why there has been in Western socities such a strong movement against the death penalty."
I disagree with this on three grounds.
First, the dominant mind in the West until very recently was not secular but Christian, and if the "West" encompasses North and South America as well as Europe (as it should), then I think it is pretty close to a tie between religious and secular world views.
Second, and as a result, there is a strong belief in the West in the idea of an afterlife, of judgement (even the deists like Thomas Jefferson and Voltaire believed in God as Judge), of higher justification for apparently forbidden acts (murder, suicide) in certain circumstances.
Third, the anti-death penalty movement is a very recent one, and also quite sharply divided between the secular humanists and the religious humanists: Catholics, in particular, are dynamic and committed members of the anti-execution activist ranks. Humanist and Enlightenment opposition to execution was based more on the deleterious effects of execution on the society which carries them out than on the injustice done the individual criminal; that's why Enlightenment writers opposed *public* executions, but very few of them opposed capital punishment in principle.
Dan - 10/24/2003
> You collapse everything into everything, don't you? Must make
> you feel good.
It's a gift.
> Regarding Vietnam, I believe I have indicated I did not
> approve of (and actually opposed to the extent I could) our
> I would not however characterize the bombing as
Bombs dropped from 10s of thousands of feet, with no guidance system, are pretty indiscriminate (look it up).
> As for Germany and Japan, no, I do not have a problem with
> that bombing, except to acknowledge the tragedy of it.
Yet you have a problem with a people fighting back in the only method available to them. How utterly indiscriminate of you.
> Responsbility for that tragedy lies with the dicatorships that
> brought it about. The blood of those bombings is on their
> hands, no one else's.
The bombings served no military purpose, though there was legitimate disagreement about that at the time. Just as the invasion of Iraq served no real purpose. The blood of those actions are on George Bush's hands, no one else's. When he odered troops in, he ordered those people's deaths.
> George Bush most certainly did not "order" civilian deaths.
> Did civilians die in Iraq? Yes, of course. But every culture
> I know of makes a distinction between intentional homicide
> and inadvertant killings,
I suggest you try that defense. Do you think the guy in (Vegas?) who was drunk and ran down a crowd of people got out of a jail sentence because he told the judge he didn't INTEND to kill people when he got in his car?
> especially in warfare and even
> regarding the actions of its enemies in warfare. Suicide
> bombings involve the INTENTIONAL killing of civilians.
Invasion of a sovereign nation involves the intentional killing of civilians, whether they were the target or no. Allowances are made for defensive maneuvers, but it was clear at the time, and it is even more apparent today, that the unprovoked invasion
of Iraq had no defensive purpose (unless you are saying that Mr. Bush actually BELIEVED that Iraq was a threat, in which case either you or he are certifiably irrational).
> If you think this is word playing, that a death is a death,
Never made any such claim, of course, but nice straw man.
> you are kidding yourself. This distinction is absolutely
> essential to the very existence of civilization.
Then why don't YOU apply it?
> Your apologetics for suicide bombing put you in a total moral
Hardly. If killing civilians in war when such can be avoided is a legitimate tactic, then it must be allowed that suicide bombings, although distasteful, is nonetheless legitimate.
> I can't spell it out for you if you do not see it.
If you could spell it out, I could see it. You can't because it is not true, in any sense of the word, except perhaps to the walrus.
> As for your claim that "in war there are no civilians," this
> also is pure nonsense. Until World War I, it was perfectly
> well understood in the West, which is why you have to go to
> the Mongols for your example.
Um, you might want to read up on history before you make such sweeping claims. The record supports my claim for most of human history. Warfare may be performed by military personnel today, but it is waged by civilians. George did not have a concensus, but he had a majority of people crying for blood (hoping, of course, that it would be "their" blood, and not "ours"). In the past, when subjects were property, it made sense to destroy your enemy's property... Whatever the root, civilians aare and always have been de facto fair game.
> Since World War II, and due to the malevolent influence of
> exactly the totalitarian mentality it spawned (left and
> right), our understanding of this matter has been degraded
> to the point that we can cooly and sympathetically
> contemplate people who coldly and purposefully shred to
> little ribbons of flesh the baby in its very mother's arms.
Speak for yourself.
> And we can instead regard this simple description of such
> barbarism as cring-inducing sentimentality, while taking
> those who do notice such things to task for "propagandizing"
> and having the audactity to "ascribe bad attributes" to the
> flesh shredders.
Let ME spell it out for YOU. IF you wish to condemn baby-killers, condemn ALL baby-killers. Do not single out one group or some of such as bad while legitimizing all or some others. To do so makes you a hypocrite (you know, like Rush Limbaugh is).
> You bet I do so ascribe to them all manner of bad attitudes.
Agreed. But have you ever asked yourself WHY they have a bad attitude?
> No apologies, no way. And I recommend that if you encounter
> them down some alley someday, you would be advised to take
And you ahve a nice day, too!
Dan - 10/24/2003
> Actually, I've consistently written, taught and spoken out
> against the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets for
> quite a while now.
OK, but you still admit, below, that it is a legitimate military tactic/strategy.
> The distinction between civilians and militaries was blurred
> during the last century's "Total Wars" in which entire
> economies and whole populations were integrated into military
> production, but the distinction still existed, for those who
> were interested in finding it.
The targeting of civilians, for various purposes, has been an on and off thing for millenia, depending in large part onthe status of civilians in the various cultures at the time.
> The tactics of the Mongols or the Assyrians may bear a surface
> similarity to strategic bombing, but the similarity ends
> there: slaughter after surrender is a tactic of terror with
> no possible justification in anything remotely resembling
> civilized warfare;
No, the slaughter of civilians usually served a very military purpose: the surrender fo the NEXT town, the removal of a rival culture, or simply PR. Rarely was it done for fun.
The carpet bombing of cities served as a weapon of terror, intended to demoralize the civilian (productive) population. It turns out not to have worked for either the British or the Germans or the Japanese (who added a kicker to the package - genetically altered plague along with the flea vector - that is still around to this day).
The reference to "Civilized warfare" is a chestnut...
> strategic bombing within civilian areas is thought/argued to
> serve a specific military purpose directly related to the
> successful and rapid conclusion of the military campaign.
And it failed, unlike some of the other terror campaigns I alluded to in my post. Post-war analysis indicated that the only viable target for strategic bombing was oil...
> We may argue about cases and needs, but even a staunch
> opponent of WMD and carpet bombing and the Bush administration
> like myself understands the difference.
Or can, in his own mind, convince himself there is one...
Dave Livingston - 10/23/2003
Seems to me that both Dr. Dresner & Elia Markell have made some cogent points concerning suicde as a weapon. AS Dr. Dresner said, utilizing suicide warriors is common to warrior socities, but I would submit not to the same degree in the West as in the East today. For one thing, the dominant secular mind in the West envisions this life on earth all there is to one's existence values nothing more than life, which is in part why there has been in Western socities such a strong movement against the death penalty. To the secular mind nothing is worse than to lose one's life--save perhaps one's "quality of life" is seen by an observor unsatisfactory, regardless whatever the one whose life is at stake thinks about the matter.
In contrast, risking or giving one's life to save others is not uncommon in the West, but that is not quite the same thing as using suicide as an aggressive weapon. For instance, of the sixteen U.S. chaplains K.I.A. during the Viet-Nam War two, a soldier and one serving with the Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor for valor on the battlefield--both were Catholic priests.
The soldier of the two was Fr. Charles Watters, KIA guring the Battle of Dak-To in 1967. One reason he was awarded the Medal was because he a non-combatant at one point picked up the rifle of a fallen infantryman & fough t successfully with it to prevent PAVN tropps from over-running a U.S. aid station. Doubtlessly, he thought it necessary to fight to defend the aid station because he was aware that should the PAVNs have over-run it they would have, as they commonly did, executed our helpless wounded.
To illustrate Ms. Marktell has a point, some ,onths ago the families of some of the leaders of militant Palistian groups forbade their own children to offer to be suoicide bombers, all the while not discouraging the practice otherwise.
Jonathan Dresner - 10/23/2003
Let me put it another way: I disagree with the premise of this article that there is a cultural or institutional continuity within Islam that ties together the medieval Assassin movement with the thoroughly modern suicide bombers of the 20th and 21st centuries. If we are going to develop any real historical or present understanding of the problem presented by a suicide attack movement, we need to abandon the silly culturalist boundaries of "what's wrong with Islam" and take a look at modern history, including history of modern warfare.
Jonathan Dresner - 10/23/2003
Mr. Rifkin writes "And as far as motive - ? Who cares. In a population of 2 million you have no difficulty recruiting a tiny handful of deranged people."
And yet, in many much larger populations there are no suicide attacks at all. No, suicide attacks have occured in very specific times and places. Suicide attackers must be carefully trained: what you describe as "only a moment of courage" is quite beyond most people, particularly when, as you point out, it involves not an imminent threat or defensive sacrifice but deliberate harm to non-combatants combined with immediate and total self-destruction. People don't just go out and do these things. Even the "random acts of violence" and "workplace violence" in this country of guns is impossible to harness, focus, direct.
This is something historically interesting and this is a problem that needs solving. I'm quite sure this article isn't leading us to a solution, but the problem is still real.
Jonathan Dresner - 10/23/2003
Actually, I've consistently written, taught and spoken out against the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets for quite a while now.
The distinction between civilians and militaries was blurred during the last century's "Total Wars" in which entire economies and whole populations were integrated into military production, but the distinction still existed, for those who were interested in finding it. The tactics of the Mongols or the Assyrians may bear a surface similarity to strategic bombing, but the similarity ends there: slaughter after surrender is a tactic of terror with no possible justification in anything remotely resembling civilized warfare; strategic bombing within civilian areas is thought/argued to serve a specific military purpose directly related to the successful and rapid conclusion of the military campaign. We may argue about cases and needs, but even a staunch opponent of WMD and carpet bombing and the Bush administration like myself understands the difference.
Elia Markell - 10/22/2003
Ah, yes, the Nazi analogy. To compare the Palestinians in the West Bank to the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. It ought to take one's breath away. The fact that so many on HNN's threads will not have their breath taken away by this analogy is itself truly breathtaking.
Let me just remind you John Q that no more than three years ago, the Israelis offered the Palestinians 97% of this territory as theirs to rule. Oh, yes, I know the Palestinians did not get all they wanted. So, the natural thing to do, negotiate for it a bit longer. No, no, no. Just like those poor Jewish fools in the Warsaw Ghetto who turned down that offer from Hitler of their own homeland, they chose instead to fight to the death. How intrepid. How noble. Blow up a few more babies and teenagers. Take a stand against the totalitarians. Just like the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. God help us.
Elia Markell - 10/22/2003
You collapse everything into everything, don't you? Must make you feel good.
Regarding Vietnam, I believe I have indicated I did not approve of (and actually opposed to the extent I could) our involvement. I would not however characterize the bombing as indiscriminate. As for Germany and Japan, no, I do not have a problem with that bombing, except to acknowledge the tragedy of it. Responsbility for that tragedy lies with the dicatorships that brought it about. The blood of those bombings is on their hands, no one else's.
George Bush most certainly did not "order" civilian deaths. Did civilians die in Iraq? Yes, of course. But every culture I know of makes a distinction between intentional homicide and inadvertant killings, especially in warfare and even regarding the actions of its enemies in warfare. Suicide bombings involve the INTENTIONAL killing of civilians. If you think this is word playing, that a death is a death, you are kidding yourself. This distinction is absolutely essential to the very existence of civilization. Your apologetics for suicide bombing put you in a total moral cul-de-sac. I can't spell it out for you if you do not see it.
As for your claim that "in war there are no civilians," this also is pure nonsense. Until World War I, it was perfectly well understood in the West, which is why you have to go to the Mongols for your example. Since World War II, and due to the malevolent influence of exactly the totalitarian mentality it spawned (left and right), our understanding of this matter has been degraded to the point that we can cooly and sympathetically contemplate people who coldly and purposefully shred to little ribbons of flesh the baby in its very mother's arms. And we can instead regard this simple description of such barbarism as cring-inducing sentimentality, while taking those who do notice such things to task for "propagandizing" and having the audactity to "ascribe bad attributes" to the flesh shredders. You bet I do so ascribe to them all manner of bad attitudes. No apologies, no way. And I recommend that if you encounter them down some alley someday, you would be advised to take heed.
Stephen Rifkin - 10/22/2003
It is not entirely relevant why suicide bombers do what they do. Frequently we're told it's 'revenge' for some brother, or 'despair' or who knows what. It's not important if mommy drank or daddy beat her or she saw someone get shot or she's deranged or he's doing it for Allah or glory or to get his mother a paycheck. Those types of navel gazing exercizes are for someone in Jihad Studies 101 who already has a fully formed opinion on the matter to study.
Stephen Rifkin - 10/22/2003
Suicide bombers are cheap expendable equipment. Delivery systems really. No relation to Kamikaze pilots in that they require no training only a moment of courage. They are not crashing into aircraft carriers but instead they are putting themselves amongst completely innoncent unarmed and unaware men women and childen and typically in disguise.
You don't see young senior Hamas commanders and you don't see old suicide bombers. That is not accidental. And as far as motive - ? Who cares. In a population of 2 million you have no difficulty recruiting a tiny handful of deranged people.
John Cuepublic - 10/22/2003
Elia makes the valid point that sacrifice in battle is different from suicidal slaughtering of innocent civilians. His kneejerk assumption that Palestinian suicide terrorists are motivated mainly by "anti-Semitic hate" defies common sense, however. Were Jewish suicide fighters in the Warsaw ghetto motivated by anti-Teutonic hate ?
Dan - 10/22/2003
Yet you have no problem with B-52s raining indiscriminate death over cities (e.g. Vietnam, and B-17s over Germany, and B-29s over Japan)?
George Bush has ordered the deaths of more innocent civilians ("collateral damage") than has Osama Bin Laden...
In war, there are no civilians. This has been understood for centuries, with various degrees of faith, depending on the individual aims and cultures. Romans were more into assimilation, Gengis Khan more into intimidation, for example, but both sacked certain well-known cities and slaughtered countless civilians in the pursuit of their aims.
It is pure propaganda to ascribe bad attributes to Middle Eastern suicide bombers. Once you understand this, many things become clearer.
Elia Markell - 10/22/2003
It may be correct to describe Japanese Kamikaze as operating on "the idea of self-sacrifice in battle." But this helps little in grasping the nature of the current slaughter of innocents we call suicide bombing.
A young female law student straps explosives to herself and ignites them in a restaurant owned by Maronite Christian Arabs with both Arab and Jewish customers, men, women, children, peacefully enjoying a meal. It takes an awesome capacity for paranoid self-delusion to define such a setting as "battle," and the sacrifice is of far more than self. Of course, I realize that awesome levels of anti-Semitic hate provide the fuel that drives that awesome capacity for paranoid self-delusion (by enabling the deluded to believe that all the world's Jews are "in battle" with them and thus all are "enemies," even ten-month old babies). Hence we get the suicide bomber.
I doubt any of the historical precedents offered up here will do the job that appears to be intending of "historicizing" and hence rationalizing this descent into utter nihilism and barbarism. Perhaps a less cruel age than ours will arrive some day, and the Arabs of Palestine will look back in horror at the legacy with which their embrace of this barbarism has shackled them. No state, however broad its boundaries, will EVER banish these ghosts. A day of reckoning will have to come for them to ever be at peace as a people. In the meantime, the banalization and trivialization of this evil continues.
Jonathan Dresner - 10/22/2003
Yes, the Assassins were prepared to surrender their lives to achieve their aims. An awful lot of warrior societies have similar ethics, though the Assassins are noteworthy for being a specially trained group within a society that, as a whole, didn't support their methods.
But the real ancestor of the modern suicide bomber is the Japanese tokko-tai (Special Attack Forces), aka the Kamikaze (Divine Wind, named after the 13th century monsoons that twice destroyed Mongol forces invading Japan). Some of the methods are the same: the tokkotai used drugs to enhance the focus and reduce the fear of their forces; the tokkotai were acting to protect things they felt were sacred, including the land and Emperor of Japan and their own families. The techniques used by the Japanese in defense of the home islands included strapping explosives to oneself and false surrender. (They also were planning to use bamboo spears, and in the Battle of Okinawa tens of thousands killed themselves and fellow citizens rather than engaging the vastly superior enemy directly.)
So, the idea of suicide killers isn't unique to the Middle East. Moreover, the idea of self-sacrifice in battle is common to almost every society that has warriors....
Charles V. Mutschler - 10/22/2003
This subject is being discussed on the Chronicle of Higher Education's "Colloquy" site. There the question is the justification (or lack of same) for suicide attacks, rather than the cultural beliefs behind them.
Charles V. Mutschler
David - 10/21/2003
Suicide isn't the issue, and neither is assassination.
What is at issue here is the indiscriminate targeting of innocent civilians.
Is that too complicated for ya?