SUICIDE WAS ONCE seen as an intensely personal act. Then, with the mid- 20th
century deaths of numerous artists and writers (between, say, Virginia Woolf in
1938 and Anne Sexton in 1974), suicide came to be taken as an aesthetic statement,
a subject of literary and philosophical debate.
The Vietnam War saw the protesting self-immolations of Buddhist monks in Saigon
and then of American pacifists (like Alice Herz, Norman Morrison, and Roger LaPorte
in 1965). Such suicides, whatever else one made of them, were powerful political
statements. (Robert McNamara reports being particularly troubled by Morrison's
death, which occurred at the Pentagon.) During the 1990s an epidemic of teen suicides,
nowhere more than in Boston, was taken as a signal of youthful jeopardy, and the
broader society has worked hard to respond.
The act of self-killing so violates the life instinct that it demands attention,
whether the context is personal and private or public and political. Suicide is
one human act that cannot be ignored.
Then last year suicide emerged with new potency as a form of mass murder, with
fanatics turning their own deaths into weapons. History had seen this before,
as, for example, with kamikaze pilots, but by bringing such acts out of the narrowly
defined realm of combat into mundane settings of urban life, targeting civilians
at random, this form of suicide-murder seemed new.
And now, in Israel, self-proclaimed martyrs for Palestine have transformed
the Al Aqsa Intifadah into a major Middle East war by making their bodies into
bombs. The horrors in Jerusalem and other Israeli cities evoke more than repugnance
at the perpetrators and their cynical sponsors, more than sympathy for the victims.
A kind of social radioactivity leaks out of each suicide-murder explosion, and
we all live within its zone of contamination. The fallout is spiritual.
Like every suicide, these acts compel attention - but not just attention to
motive or to the circumstances that produce them, as if compassion for the plight
of Palestinians can properly follow from these awful deeds. Suicide-murderers
contradict every legitimate Palestinian aspiration. Their glorious martial justifications
are lies. They are enemies of their own people, because Palestinians, too, are
human beings with as much to lose as anyone if the ethos of the suicide-bombers
finds an honored place in the 21st-century imagination.
Suicide-murderers have brought the human race to a threshold, and if we cross
it, all that humans value most is lost. That applies across the otherwise determinative
boundaries of nation, race, class, culture - and the Green Line. The intensely
fragile character of human life on earth is at stake.
Think of yourself at the wheel of your car, hurtling down the highway at 60
miles an hour. You are surrounded by other drivers, strangers, all doing the same.
Only one thing enables this mortal dance of traffic - which is your trust in the
other drivers and theirs in you.
This entirely unspoken bond among total strangers is infinitely precious, yet
we take it completely for granted. On the road, everyone trusts everyone else
with nothing less than life itself. The precondition of this trust is the assumption
that the instinct for life is universal and that it is nearly absolute. Almost
nothing is worth the taking of a life - one's own or anyone else's. We trust one
another to believe that.
This trust is the real target of the suicide-bombers, and the radioactivity
that spreads out, unseen, from their explosions is already making us ill.
We are a deeply unsettled people, with numerous sources of anxiety lately -
from the scandals of religion and economy to a general homesickness for a simpler,
slower world. But the joint fracturing of two primal taboos - against suicide
and against murder - cuts our social order to the quick.
Last September, this perversion was spectacularly loosed upon New York and
Washington, but the outrageously mundane regularity with which it now falls upon
Israel has unbalanced something in the world's turning. The flywheel of civilization
Alas, the usefulness of the suicide-murder tactic as an odds-evener for the
relatively powerless has become shockingly clear. Hence the grotesque cheering
among so many Palestinians, which is itself a warning. The possibility that suicide-murder
will therefore emerge as a major strategy of world conflict, driven by armies
of the self-deluded and their cynical sponsors, already sets in motion not the
literal fear of being blown up in a Boston cafe, say, but the deeper fear that
strangers are not to be trusted after all.
We see what the first phase of this fear has done to our airports. If suicide-murder
is not firmly repudiated by all humans, imagine what it will do to our highways.
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company