Bewilderment from the daily news


The Charleston Gazette  -  Nov. 12, 2003

   (Distributed by Knight-Ridder-Tribune syndicate)


By James A. Haught


DAY AFTER day, the familiar news rolls in: Suicide bombers in a truck obliterate themselves and the Red Cross humanitarian center in Baghdad. A young woman with plastique hidden under her clothes destroys herself and defenseless diners in an Israeli restaurant. Suicidal fanatics kill themselves and patrons in a Russian theater. More Muslim volunteers blow up themselves and a Saudi Arabian neighborhood. Etc., etc.

In response, defiant politicians mouth the same predictable vows: "We stand resolute against the forces of evil." Etc., etc., etc.

It's a macabre marathon. Amid this recurring gore, I'm boggled because hardly anyone asks the fundamental question: Why has slaughter-by-suicide become the chief driving force of world events in the new millennium?

The horrible pattern portends that homemade nuclear bombs could be unleashed in peaceful cities, if they become available. Ditto for anthrax spores and nerve gas.

"Cognitive dissonance" is the confusion people suffer when things don't add up -- when they can't quite make sense of what's happening. Franz Kafka novels were full of it. I've been in that state ever since 9/11. I still can't fathom why intelligent young "martyrs" feel such intense hate that they throw away their lives to massacre unsuspecting strangers.

Some scholars blame it on hopelessness, a sense that life is so bad that one has nothing to lose by plunging into a self-lethal attack against the presumed cause of one's misery. However, truly hopeless people, such as hungry peasants in poverty-wracked Third World places, rarely commit terrorism.

Besides, the 19 men who perpetrated the 9/11 tragedy were mostly well-educated Saudis with good career prospects. Surely they didn't feel hopeless.

The handwritten testament they left behind spoke only of religion. They did it for God, they wrote -- striking God's enemies, in hope of entering a heaven full of luscious virgins. ("The women of paradise are waiting, calling out, 'Come hither, friend of God.'")

But I can't swallow the absurd notion that devout young men would kill 3,000 people because they think God has enemies, and will reward killers who destroy those enemies.  Such a ludicrous belief triggers massive cognitive dissonance.  It's easier to blame these attacks on political and cultural factors -- although other types of political strife don't spawn suicide volunteers.

Of course, America also has some loony-tunes elements. Don't forget Gen. Boykin, the Pentagon's intelligence chief, who preaches holy war in far-right churches and claims that shadows in aerial photos of Islamic cities reveal the presence of Satan.

Also, don't forget the string of falsehoods issued by President Bush to prove that America must invade Iraq immediately, instead of letting U.N. weapons inspections continue. It turned out that Iraq had no horror weapons, wasn't in league with terrorists, had no link to 9/11, and didn't welcome U.S. troops. Since all the White House's purported reasons were fictitious, what was the real reason for the war? Why is nobody asking this question?

The daily news is enough to bewilder any intelligent person. Why have volunteer human bombs become the foremost weapon in today's conflicts? Why did President Bush start a war on phony pretexts? What's going on? Can anyone make sense of all this butchery in the new century?

Has life become a Kafka novel? Are we living in a booby hatch? Maybe those fruitcakes who predicted that the turn of the millennium would bring the end of the world foresaw at least a shred of truth.

<I>Haught is the Gazette's editor.<P>