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The Real Roots of Suicide Bombing

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What ever happened to former New York Times reporter and alleged neocon sympathizer Judith Miller? She's just resurfaced and is aiding and abetting the left!

At least, that's my reading of her recent research on suicide bombing, as laid out in an interview she just did for my video web site Bloggingheads.tv. Her findings are strikingly consistent with political scientist Robert Pape's argument that suicide bombing is typically a response to foreign military occupation--and that, when the occupation ends, the suicide bombing ends.

Miller spent time in an Israeli jail with two would-be female Palestinian suicide bombers and wrote up her results for Policy Review. That's a conservative journal, but her essay isn't a right-wing screed. And the details of Miller's story, as elicited by interviewer Jackie Shire, tend to support Pape's theory--more than Miller realizes, I think.

Pape rejects the conventional view that suicide bombing is fundamentally an expression of Islamic fundamentalism. And indeed, neither would-be bomber interviewed by Miller is a religious extremist. One is enraged by the Israeli occupation, which has brought the death of two cousins and the jailing of a brother. The other is less politically engaged but has personal reasons for suicidal despair. As Pape stresses, suicide bombers have a variety of motives.

But, he adds, however varied the individuals, the groups that recruit and deploy them have clear and consistent goals. And it's the group's motives that matter most, because without the group the aspiring suicide bombers would be powerless. This dependence of the bombers on an elaborate infrastructure comes through clearly in Miller's account. As she puts it: "It takes a village" to create a single suicide bomber.

So what does the "village" want? Almost always--whether the group is Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, the Tamil Tigers, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, whatever--the goal is withdrawal of foreign troops, says Pape. When Israeli troops vacated Lebanon, he notes, Hezbollah suicide bombers didn't follow Israeli soldiers back to Tel Aviv. By the same token, he says, the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq would greatly reduce Iraqi suicide bombing--and not bring it back to America.

A clear understanding of suicide bombing won't always make it easy to stop terrorism. According to Hamas's current ideology, the Israeli "occupation" includes the occupation of Israel proper, not just Gaza and the West Bank. And an Israeli withdrawal from Israel is a bit much to ask.

Still, seeing terrorist groups as rational actors is the first step to combatting a pernicious right-wing meme: the idea that terrorism is ultimately incoherent, grounded in pure religious zealotry or some supposed Arab irrationality or whatever. If you buy that meme, you're likely to think there's no point in even talking about serious territorial concessions in Palestine, or reconsidering American military deployment in Iraq or the Middle East broadly.

Judy Miller says she sees no simple ideological moral in her story, either left or right. And she refuses to endorse Pape's view broadly, though she concedes that "Pape seems to have the statistics on his side." Whether this refusal reflects inner neocon leanings I'll leave it for others to debate after seeing what she says. But so far as I can see her recent research supports Pape's basic thesis: suicide bombing is a tactic of groups that have clear objectives and pursue them rationally, if ruthlessly. And a corollary of this thesis--that some terrorists may be people you can deal with--terrifies the right.

Footnote: I don't mean to say Pape himself is a thoroughgoing lefty. He seems to be a foreign-policy "realist" whose prescriptions (not all of which I buy) are ideologically eclectic. But his prescribed response to suicide bombing--withdraw all American land forces from the Arabian peninsula--is shared by many on the left. And, in any event, his analysis is definitely grist for the progressive mill. (By the way, none of this is to deny that terrorism is an immoral tactic--or maybe even, in some sense, an evil tactic. But that's different from the right wing claim that the very source of terrorism is evil--some sort of unfathomable black hole of badness that renders analysis futile. The source of terrorism is people with goals, and grasping that fact is the first step toward stopping it.)

Tech support footnote: If you're Mac-based and have trouble viewing the video, just download the free realplayer software from www.real.com.