Suicide killers

2008-07-08 00:00

UNITED States campus killer and Iraqi suicide bomber: compare and contrast.

Similarity: they kill others and themselves in the pro-cess. Difference: the suicide bomber kills himself (it is normally a man, a young man) simultaneously with his victims while the campus killer kills others and then himself (I have not yet heard of a female of the species). The campus killer seems to turn his weapon on himself when he has sickened of his murderous rampage. The suicide bomber uses his death to take his victims with him.

Both classes of killer plan their attacks meticulously. It is precisely in order to be as sure as possible of murdering as many of the precisely targeted people that the suicide bomber takes his victims with him, making his self-immolation theirs. The campus killer also chooses his targets with clinical care. The latest one, Cho Seung-Hui, at Virginia Tech, even took time out of his killing spree to broadcast the categories of staff and students that he was hunting down; their class and their attitudes. The difference is that the planning of the suicide bomber is done with others while the campus killer plots alone.

Some of these killers appear uncomfortably normal before they struck. Some are of good, salt of the earth families, often students of reasonable or high intelligence with some prospects, and, as young people, with a life ahead of them. But something or someone persuades them that this life is not worth living and that it is being made intolerable by the people they blow up or blow away.

The suicide bomber in Baghdad believes that these people are the foreign, and his Sunni or Shia, neighbours. Of course, once the tit- for-tat bombing is under way and a young man has witnessed the carnage in his street or local market, revenge must surely play a part in his motivation. And revenge appears pretty high on the agenda of the likes of Seung-Hui. The rich “brats” were presumably the kind of student whom he felt had offended him. The sense of honour trampled underfoot seems also to be relevant in Baghdad — a people occupied and now perceiving themselves threatened and humiliated by the neighbouring religious group.

To make a name for oneself also seems part of the motivation. The campus killer often appears to feel excluded from the mainstream of school and society and is determined finally to be noticed. He gets his hour of notoriety, flaming forth from his nonentity status to an immediate media phenomenon. In time books will be written about him, as they were about Charles Joseph Whitman, the Texas Tower sniper who in 1966 gunned down 50 people on the university campus. The suicide bomber aspires to the status of heroic martyrdom but with the compensation of an afterlife of bliss.

One explanation some give for the suicide bombing campaign in Iraq is that we are dealing with evil people bent on the destruction of Western civilisation. When it comes to campus killings others tell us that unfortunately there are mad and bad people out there and that it is people who kill people, not guns that do it. Other avenues of analysis, it is argued, incur the danger of letting guilty and gruesome killers off the moral hook. This disingenuous, one-dimensional approach conveniently ab-solves us from looking at the contextual factors which contribute to these events. There certainly are mad and bad people everywhere, but what calls out for explanation is why campus killing is a particularly American pastime, infrequent in France, and why suicide bombings happen in Iraq and not in New Zealand.

The analysis of the campus killer phenomenon is stymied by the debate of gun ownership, or rather the non-debate. Gun control in the U.S. is a political dead end. It loses politicians votes in a country whose archetypal hero is the lone gun- fighter and in which there are as many guns as there are people. In a word the majority are in love with firearms.

If an academic writing in from the University of Texas in The Chronicle of Higher Education website can comment on the Virginia Tech massacre and not even breathe a mention of the gun control issue, this is an indication of the difficulty. There is a political and cultural lockdown on debate that in other societies would be regarded as normal.

Similar strictures exist in the U.S. on the debate about the extreme but now almost routine violence wreaked by the apparently endless queue of suicide bombers. The politicians seem too preoccupied with how to avoid having to handle the inevitable defeat, with its traumatic national memories of the Vietnam rout, to face up to the reality of the situation. And no politician will say anything that can incur an accusation of disloyalty to the boys in the shooting gallery. So it becomes impossible to ask why on earth or in heaven’s name all this suicide bombing mayhem is happening at all.

“They hate us and our way of life”, and other sound bites, are the profundities proffered.

How can you begin to solve problems about which you cannot talk?

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