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Public Culture 15.1 (2003) 65-89
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"Comes a Time We Are All Enthusiasm":
Understanding Palestinian Suicide Bombers in Times of Exighophobia
Talking Suicide Bombers in the West, a Polemic
In the days that followed the Israeli army's reinvasion of the West Bank in March 2002 and the resultant destruction of the embryonic elements of a sovereign Palestinian society, I, like many, sat in my office fuming, e-mailing with depressed friends and colleagues to express our helplessness and despair at the unbelievable injustice of it all. Besides the death and devastation, most depressing perhaps was the mediatic normalization of the very idea of a nation's military rampaging virtually unopposed—like Genghis Khan in tanks—in another nation's cities and towns, leveling entire streets, destroying homes. It was for all of us an absurdly anachronistic form of violence: a medieval mode of warfare outfitted in modern technology.
I took it upon me to send Arab, Jewish, and other concerned friends an e-mail that attempted to think through the nature and ramifications of this violence. While addressing the Israeli government's use of Palestinian suicide bombers (PSBs) as an excuse for transforming cities into rubble, I pointed out that to a large degree the Israeli government shared with the suicide bombers a lack of concern with the humanity of the people murdered in the course of the conflict. In a communal Us versus Them logic, the dehumanizing gaze that saw Them [End Page 65] as a nondifferentiated entity (Israel/the Palestinians), abstracted from the particular human beings that constituted it, is often accompanied by an equally self-dehumanizing, abstracted vision of Us. I knew very well from my experience of the Lebanese civil war both as a participant and a student that when a logic of communal war prevails, neither of the warring sides really cares for the actual material human being-ness of the situation. More "important" things like "communities" and "nations" are at stake. I argued that given the prevalence of that logic, "the bombs of Hamas against civilians might outrage the humanists among us for being precisely that: bombs against civilians," but what was more important for the Israeli colonialist government was that these bombs showed the Israeli Us to be vulnerable, which is also what the suicide bombers were trying to demonstrate.
The day after I sent my e-mail, I was surprised to receive a long rebuke from a colleague on the Jewish left. In an e-mail, he informed me that he was "sad to see that these days scholars speak in strangely brutal language" and that he could not
join in common cause with people who endorse this horrendous path of voluptuously violent martyrdom. I don't really want to stand alongside anybody who cheers other people, young people, along that appalling path without being prepared to follow it themselves. . . . I cannot respect the political sensibilities and moral judgement of people who indulge, from positions of comfortable impunity, in this unbecoming kind of vicarious bravery—which is really a form of bad faith and moral cowardice.
The moralizing nature of the reply took me aback. I could not believe that I had become someone who endorsed the "horrendous path of voluptuously violent martyrdom," someone faced with either exploding himself in Palestine or acknowledging his moral cowardice. I wondered how my matter-of-factly stated observation about the political imaginaries behind suicide bombing, regardless of whether one agrees with it, was transformed into support for "voluptuously violent martyrdom." It was as if the moral neutrality of my statement was itself self-condemnatory.
Indeed, as I was later informed by a mutual friend, my colleague felt that the real issue was whether I "absolutely condemn" suicide bombers. Apparently it is crucial to "absolutely condemn" suicide bombers if you are going to talk about them, otherwise you become a morally suspicious person. This immediately raised an issue for me. As I only mentioned suicide bombing in relation to what I thought were the inhumane acts of...