Last week I came across an article Terry Eagleton had written on suicide bombing back in 2005. I wasn’t paying attention back then, but Ophelia Benson was. As I read it and re-read it my blood began to curdle. I mentioned that Eagleton’s appeared a defense of suicide bombing, and it was immediately proposed that his was only a way of trying to understand – not glorify – suicide bombers. After all, they’re people, too.
Blowing yourself up for political reasons is a complex symbolic act, one that mixes despair and defiance. It proclaims that even death is preferable to your wretched way of life. The act of self-dispossession writes dramatically large the self-dispossession that is your routine existence. Laying violent hands on yourself is a more graphic image of what your enemy does to you anyway.
Eagleton gets this so wrong in his verve to “comprehend” the bombers’ motives (“self-disposession” is just a fancy term for “suicide”) that I can’t help but read it as pure obfuscation. Since most of the victims of suicide attacks are civilians minding their own business in places like trains, buses, pizzerias and public spaces, I can’t really follow Eagleton in wondering how these people are the “enemy” or what they will do to the poor, oppressed bomber that he can’t do better himself.
But he goes even further:
Suicide bombers also die in the name of a better life for others; it is just that, unlike martyrs, they take others with them in the process. The martyr bets his life on a future of justice and freedom; the suicide bomber bets your life on it.
Does Eagleton realize that in many of the societies that churn out and celebrate suicide bombers, they are seen as exactly that – martyrs? Or is he eulogizing Joan of Arc and the pantheon of saints who “bet their lives on a future of justice and freedom?” Then there’s that little, almost imperceptible word “just.” The only difference, he is saying, between the just freedom fighter and the suicidal mass murderer, is that the latter “bets” your life on it, too. Eagleton is being compassionate to the plight of the suicide bomber. He’s trying hard not to judge.
He ends his little prose poem with a stab at the meaninglessness of life in a modern, democratic society:
In a social order that seems progressively more depthless, transparent, rationalised and instantly communicable, the brutal slaughter of the innocent, like some Dadaist happening, warps the mind as well as the body.
Imagine this, if you will. A bomber explodes in Baghdad/Tel Aviv/London/Beslan: there are body parts everywhere, torn to shreds, hundreds injured and mutilated for life with nails and screws and shards of metal and glass embedded in their skin end eyeballs. None of them are armed. None of them are soldiers. Their only perceptible crime is that they live in a “depthless, transparent, rationalised and instantly communicable” modern society, whatever that means. If you are Terry Eagleton, you can almost (well, he did write “slaughter of the innocent,” didn’t he?) bring yourself to interpret such atrocities as a “happening.”
I bet if you stare at the mangled gore long enough it even begins to look like art.