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The Boy Bombers: Review of “The Cult of the Suicide Bomber”

Nicholas Powers Jun 30, 2006

The Cult of the Suicide Bomber
Written By Robert Bear and Kevin Toolis
Directed By David Batty and Kevin Toolis
Distributed By Disinformation

In 1980, as men killed men to move the border of Iran and Iraq, a family sat down to dinner. News came of a boy who strapped explosives to himself and blew up an enemy tank. “I said they are talking of my son,” his mother remembered. “No one said anything after that.”

The silence at the table was of sorrow being overpowered by fear and pride. It is a scene from The Cult of the Suicide Bomber a documentary hosted by Robert Baer, a former C.I.A. officer whose career was the basis for the film Syriana. Baer begins with the story of Mohammad Hossein Fahmideh, the boy who sacrificed himself and whose death is celebrated as the first martyrdom of the Iran- Iraq War. Fahmideh’s spontaneous act of courage was elevated by the Ayatollah Khomeini into an official tactic of war, culminating in thousands of boys marching across minefields to explode them and clear a path for the military.

The tactic saved Iran and soon martyrdom spread through the Middle East where Baer was stationed. In 1983, a rebel drove a pick-up filled with explosives into the U.S. embassy in Beirut killing 63 of Baer’s colleagues. In the film he stares at the shiny hotel built over the site that has no memorial to acknowledge their deaths. So, he returns to Iran to ask Fahmideh’s mother about her son’s suicide and is told the boy did not commit suicide but sacrificed himself for the nation. The conversation is a subtle tug-of-war. Are Fahmideh and all those who followed him suicide bombers or martyrs?

It is an unresolved question that Baer explores from martyrdom in the Iran-Iraq War to Hezbollah’s 1983 bombings in Beirut to the Palestinian Intifada and from the insurgency in Iraq to the subway attacks in London. In each successive stage he sees it detach from a specific goal-oriented action to achieve a single goal to become a culture, a way of life passed from generation to generation. He shows us a father with friends celebrating a video of his son exploding an Israeli checkpoint, boys in black-masks holding machine guns and babies dressed in ceremonial outfits with dynamite wrapped around the waist.

Baer never opens himself to their desperation. He insists on calling them suicide-bombers rather than martyrs. Baer is trying to make sense of his colleagues’ death not of the lives of those who killed them. If he is unable to find and punish the suicide-bombers he can punish the idea of martyrdom that gave them the courage to kill. He calls martyrdom a “pathological virus” that leads “to chaos.”

For all his acclaimed intimacy with Mid-East culture Baer joins far-away pundits like David Brooks who wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “Suicide bombing is the crackcocaine of warfare.” Brooks’ statement is a racially loaded phrase – for other addictive drugs such as heroin or meth exist, but crack-cocaine in our culture is linked to Blacks. He uses crack-cocaine to describe military tactics used by another people of color, in this case, Arabs, to suggest a common deficiency of reason that is the staple of racism.

It is an angle of speech intended to be a slippery slope down which millions of Arabs fall to the rhetorical position of junkies. It lengthens the distance between us and them. It justifies morbid voyeurism as a medical necessity. It returns us to a place of power as the ones who can cure them of the “pathological virus” and thereby cure them of the only weapon they have to fend us off. If they are addicted to death what of our addiction to oil and are the two related? To give up the insulating rhetoric that degrades Muslims to victims of feverish rage and see them as a people driven to desperation, we would be forced to see ourselves through their eyes and accept the bankruptcy of our transcendent values when we sabotaged democracy for cheap oil.

In the end, the Western agentturned- documentarian and the Muslim family both are locked in mutual suspicion, each trying to hold on to dead loved ones by anchoring them into a history that is less a history than a mythology of good and evil that continues the war.