Monday Musings: On Suicide Killers

Our friend Ram recently gave a talk at the Asia Society here in New York on the tsunami and peace in Sri Lanka. It touched on a larger question, or an antecedent question: can you negotiate with people who use suicide bombers?

The LTTE in Sri Lanka has been responsible for the majority of suicide bombings in the recent decades, and it has done so for explicitly secular nationalist reasons with bombers who are largely Hindu and Christian. Ram’s take is that while he doesn’t know whether you can negotiate peace with those who use suicide killers, he thinks that negotiations can delay war. The Sri Lankan state, of course, has little choice, given the balance of forces.

Certainly, states negotiate with people who use terrorism quite often. And the world accepts people who used terrorism to achieve political aims. This is as true of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir (their Irgun and Lehi past respectively) as it is of Arafat or the ANC. And most terrorist groups, I suspect, would gladly trade resources and methods with their adversaries.

Suicide bombing conjures up different images. Morally, there is little difference from a suicide bomber who kills civilians and a terrorist who fires a rocket propelled grenade into a crowd of civilians, except that the latter may still be left to carry out another attack. But we have this image of suicide bombers as beyond reason, negotiation, and self-interest. That is, it’s hard to imagine what could possibly reach them, what, short of total surrender could appease them if they’re willing to so far as kill themselves in this way.

This image, of course, confuses the bombers themselves, with those who use them. (Or perhaps not entirely.) One can’t really imagine the Old Man of the Mountain, the leader of the Assassins, one of history’s early suicide killers, himself carrying out a suicide attack, or beyond negotiation. Bin Laden’s video message just before the elections seemed in this line and an offer to negotiate. Needless to say, this is not at all the same as saying that one should in this instance, but rather it is to raise the question of can one (in the sense of possible) negotiate with those who use suicide terrorism.

My old classmate Mia Bloom, author of Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror, met with the LTTE in 2002, as she was conducting surveys of Tamils in LTTE controlled regions. Her impressions and experience are telling.

“I remarked how friendly everyone was and asked the guard, ‘Is he [Secretary-General of the LTTE Peace Secretariat S. Puleedevan] a killer?’

The guard smiled: ‘Oh yeah.’ I never expected terrorists to be so pleasant.

. . .

Puleedevan acknowledged that after Sept. 11, 2001, the tactics that had worked so well for them in the past were no longer appropriate.”

What that all says and means is unclear? If those who use suicide bombers appear more open to reason, to appeals of self-interest, and negotiation, then they seem more morally culpable than before, as the actions seem less born of insanity than of strategic calculation and moral choice. And if that’s the case, then perhaps some states do not have the luxury of not talking to them and trying to appeal to reason.