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The Clash of Absurdities


She hesitates at the doorway of the cafe, suddenly conscious of the thing’s weight. Trained to appear casual, she sits down at a table in the center of the room. The waiter takes her order; she is hardly aware of speaking to him. She tries not to look at the people seated around her in the cafe.

She believes that what she is about to do has a purpose, that it will give her existence meaning.

How many of us, if we believed irrefutably that we could make a lasting contribution to society, would not do so? To be an inspiration to those left behind, even as we take our own final leave? To avenge the innocent dead?

As if the dead cared about revenge.

There are several soldiers, a few families, some men in suits. A baby is crying. The blood pounding in her ears creates a high-pitched ringing, erasing all the familiar sounds of a cafe at lunchtime: silverware tinkling, laughter, music. Her mind alternates between a blinding, kaleidoscopic rush of thoughts and…

…the single, inescapable fact that in a few moments her life will be over.

The outrage that the victims, their families, and the public share often stems from the misperception that the bomber has gotten away with something. A thief may get away with something. A suicide bomber gets away with literally nothing.

She thinks of her family…what the room will soon look like…how she will be remembered. The picture of her that the family will carry through the streets before installing it in a place of honor…the money that she may earn for them by this act… the sound of her own name on weeping lips…her best friend. She starts to pray, her finger on the trigger, as a single bead of sweat rolls down her temple.

Our fascination with the individuals who execute these tragedies is long withered. Years ago, they had names, faces. But the carnal saga of the suicide bomber has dulled any flicker of empathy most Americans might have ever felt for their causes. Newspaper accounts of their deeds omit anything of the personal. They no longer have names.

In Palestine, where the historical enactment of this scene has now played through its second generation, the shuhada have become a cult. Many Middle Eastern nations grant stipends to the families of these “martyrs” (so called because the Quran expressly forbids suicide). Framed pictures of the deceased are paraded through the streets before taking their place in homes and in bizarre public galleries. Bombers attain a legendary status, proportionate, of course, to the havoc they wreak. An attitude of pride in their “accomplishments” is promoted among children. These rituals are well on their way to becoming as institutionalized as betrothals and harvest seasons.

The shuhada are generally motivated by a desire for vengeance–which explains the emergence of their equivalent in Iraq.

Conservative estimates place the number of Iraqi deaths caused by the twelve-year U.N. economic embargo at one million, half of them under the age of five. Theoretically, everyone in that country might, thus, have a rationale for vendetta. It is common knowledge in Iraq that it was the U.S. and Britain who consistently resisted efforts by other Security Council members to soften the most brutal aspects of the sanctions regime.

And the fact that most Americans are not even aware of this colossal tragedy does not in itself make it forgivable.

The shuhada come from all walks of life: professionals, blue collars, unemployed. Yet many Americans cling to the notion that they must be deranged or entranced mental defectives. The idea that they do not place as great a primacy on their lives as we do is the same convenient delusion that General William Westmoreland was promoting during the Viet Nam conflict, avowing a “difference in the oriental mind”. But seeking refuge in the diagnosis is insufficient to curing the plague.

I have never seen the case put as succinctly as Charles Bowden did in Blues For Cannibals: “People who realize that they have no future can be convinced to endure their suffering; people who realize they have no present will kill.”

Gulya Hairullina, reporting for Moscow’s Novaya Gazeta (World Press Review, 12/03), interviewed young Chechen women training to inflict carnage on hapless Russians. One in particular named Malika told Hairullina that if babies died because of her actions, “then it means it was predestined.” The journalist then tried to examine her beliefs from the perspective of her religious convictions, but she was startled by Malika’s matter-of-fact answer: “I have to punish them.” Punish whom? “All of you.”

Yes, she had made up her mind to kill innocent people. For her, there were no innocents. Malika’s home was broken into and she was taken away by soldiers, who then raped her. Now she is one of the dreaded Black Widows, as the Russians call them. She would wholeheartedly revenge herself on the world for the theft of her own innocence.

The American mass media has largely failed to contextualize the issues that engender this desperate alternative. The resulting ignorance of those issues among Americans makes it appear that they condone the foreign policies that inspire acts of international terror.

How can Americans not understand, they wonder. How can they not care?

The Palestinian perception is that the calamity of occupation is relentlessly crushing their civilization. Since 1980, Iraqis have undergone three wars, an embargo that destroyed the most advanced culture in the Muslim world, and now their own occupation. Chechens look to no other nation for surcease from the military repression that has been their lot for ten years.

Among Palestinians, there appears to be no shortage of volunteers for “paradise on the other side of the trigger”. People who realize they have no present will kill.

* * *

The French novelist/existentialist Albert Camus held that the only philosophical question worth debating was whether, in an absurd world, one should commit suicide.

For Camus, absurdity lay everywhere. We may long and strive for truth, beauty, fairness–the universe is indifferent to our cries. We act as though we will live forever, but death waits at the end of all our plans and momentous concerns. We want meaning in our lives, and unconsciously fear that there may never be any. And this desire for meaning has occasionally motivated, at various points in history, actions that most of us would deem madness.

Abstractions? Consider this: an American soldier in Iraq, in the belief that she is fighting for the liberation of that country, is terribly injured. The administration in Washington, floating any number of unsubstantiated reports about her brave conduct under fire, attempts to create a heroine out of Private Lynch, who remained unconscious throughout the time her “captors” were caring for her. When she is somewhat recovered from her wounds, she rejects unconditionally this blatant myth making. She finds it absurd.

Within almost the same time frame, American Rachel Corrie is intentionally run over by an Israeli bulldozer while attempting to save the house of a Palestinian dentist who moved to the West Bank out of a sense of duty to his people. The story of her heroism disappears from media attention, seemingly within moments, without the slightest protest from the American government over the murder of one of it unarmed citizens.

A comparison between the two women in terms of their heroism is never made; it would be the quintessential absurdity to do so.

* * *

Camus eventually came to the conclusion that there were only two options beside suicide that could grant meaning in an absurd world: an end to reflection and a total absorption in one’s life…or revolt.

JOE QUANDT is a member of Voices in the Wilderness. He can be reached at:


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