Faith & Reason: The attack on children is not the only thing that appals us

We in the West still cannot comprehend the mindset of those who are ready to blow themselves up

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The sight of half-naked children, some of them covered in blood, running in panic from the besieged school in southern Russia yesterday was peculiarly horrifying. Those who are capable of inflicting such terror on children seem to have a mindset which is utterly alien to us. The temptation is to ask whether they can really be human.

The sight of half-naked children, some of them covered in blood, running in panic from the besieged school in southern Russia yesterday was peculiarly horrifying. Those who are capable of inflicting such terror on children seem to have a mindset which is utterly alien to us. The temptation is to ask whether they can really be human.

History, of course, tells us that human beings have always been very capable of slaughtering the innocent. And though our unambiguous moral judgement may be that it is wrong to target children in war, we acknowledge that it's not only "them" who do it; we all know what happened at Dresden, Hiroshima and My Lai.

But there is something else we find profoundly disturbing about incidents like this. It is to do with the willingness of the captors to blow themselves up with their victims. The suicide bomber's readiness to die is strangely shocking. We may applaud noble sentiment such as that which closes A Tale of Two Cities: "It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done . . ." But it is deeply ingrained in us that there is something profoundly perverse in embracing death.

There is a collision here of three things. Our basic animal instinct for survival rebels against the very thought of death, let alone of self-inflicted death. Then there is the Christian tradition that suicide is a sin beyond forgiveness. The third factor is a post-religious horror of extinction. If you believe that there is nothing beyond death and the only meaning in the universe is the meaning we give it, then voluntary self-annihilation becomes the abnegation of everything.

Today, we associate suicide bombing with Muslims, though the tactic was pioneered (and has been most used) by the Tamils in Sri Lanka. Ironically, the original spiritual ancestor of all suicide bombers is Samson, the ancient Israelite whose famous last words were: "Let me die with the Philistines!" The Book of Judges notes that he killed far more of his enemies in his death than in his life, and implies that many of these victims were women.

Of course, the Christian tradition distinguishes between suicides and martyrs, and has honoured the latter as enthusiastically as it has condemned the former. Islam does the same. In a recent interview with the magazine Third Way, the Muslim sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi contrasted this religious outlook with that of the secular West, saying: "You are in love with life; we are in love with sacrifice." In both religions there is a strong belief that there is a life after death with whose glory (to quote the apostle Paul) our present sufferings are not worth comparing. If you believe that this better life is given as a reward, it not only takes away the fear of death, it encourages even the ultimate self-sacrifice for the good of others.

Jesus himself is an interesting case of someone who not only accepted his death willingly but seems to have hastened it. "No one takes [my life] from me," he said, "I lay it down of my own accord"; and there is a hint in the Gospels that, once he believed he had completed whatever mysterious transaction was made in his crucifixion, he did not struggle to stay alive. Certainly his Roman executioners did not expect a man of his age to "give up his spirit" as quickly as he did.

Sheikh al-Qaradawi vigorously defended what he calls "martyrdom operations" in Palestine/Israel. It is, he said, "part of the justice of God that some people have a readiness to sacrifice themselves [that] their enemies do not possess. This is the weapon of the oppressed, who have no access to the kind of weapons their attackers have."

Here, perhaps, is another source of our horror at such tactics: we have come to expect that in "civilised" conflicts victory goes to those who have overwhelming technological superiority - and, as it happens, fate (or the virtue of liberal democracy or whatever) has given just such superiority to us and our allies. We may be a little squeamish about cluster bombs and "daisy cutters", and we may feel uneasy when they are dropped without accuracy from six miles up; but most of us feel it broadly acceptable to use them. Whereas, when our enemies embrace their own deaths in order to deliver a few pounds of gelignite, well, that's just wicked.

Which brings us back to that other source of our horror: the targeting of children. All is fair, they say, in love and war, but the Geneva Conventions disagree and so, too, does Islam. Al-Qaradawi qualified his defence of "martyrdom operations" with the caveat: "Only, one should not deliberately try to hurt the innocent." In the end, this is the real crux. Perhaps the ruthlessness of the terrorists - Chechen, Palestinian and all - owes less to the teachings of religion than to the despair engendered by the ruthless methods of the secular states they are fighting.

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