Teen-age suicide is always a tragedy in any country. Parents, teachers, friends search their memories for clues they might have missed.
Psychologists list dangerous symptoms to watch for to prevent another child from taking his own life, including depression, feelings of worthlessness, anxiety and irritability. Some cite mental illness as the primary cause.
Losing a close friendship, poor school performance, family disruption, rejection by a "steady," an inability to find meaning in the ordinary details of living can all contribute to teen-age despair. So can changes in hormones, particularly when added to stress at a vulnerable time of a kid's life. Drugs and alcohol draw out latent destructive impulses. Some disturbed children have trouble making distinctions between life and death, reality and fantasy. Sometimes even newspaper and television stories about teen-age suicide glamorize it for those most vulnerable.
Hotlines or help lines proliferate for those boys and girls and young adults who seek counseling or medical attention. But thoughts of suicide are of such an isolating nature that getting a young person to reach out to anybody is difficult. Church and synagogue are often enlisted.
Statistics suggest that 2,000 children and adolescents commit suicide each year in the United States. Staggering as these numbers are, they barely suggest the toll in personal tragedy.
In surveys conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control, almost 20 percent of teen-agers say they have thought of committing suicide in the previous year. Almost 15 percent say they have even made plans to kill themselves. Attempted but unsuccessful suicides are often cries for help.
Teen-age suicide becomes all the more provocative as we look at what's happening in the Middle East, where recruits are sought for suicide bombers among teen-agers and young adults. While the international outrage, rightly, has been focused on the murder of innocents at seders, markets, malls, pizza parlors and most recently a pool hall, where is the outrage at the exploitation of Palestinian children recruited to kill themselves while killing others? Where is the outrage in the Muslim world toward those who encourage this culture of annihilation among the young?
Instead of drawing distinctions between life and death, the Islamists who encourage suicide bombers blur the distinctions between life and death, offering specific rewards in paradise that are nowhere inscribed in the Koran, the holy book of Muslims. In fact, say Islamic scholars, Islam forbids suicide; it is one of the five "unpardonable sins," along with cannibalism, murder, incest and rape. But champions of suicide bombers have created a new code of ethics and semantics for both murder and suicide.
Instead of establishing hotlines or help lines, they entice the vulnerable young with rhetoric romanticizing self-destruction. Instead of asking would-be suicide bombers to cry out with the doubts many of them must have, the "leaders" demand that thoughts of self-annihilation be encouraged in secrecy. A martyr must be mute. Instead of creating a culture of survival, these exploiters of the young support a culture of silence and death.
"Many Arab television channels have enlisted their resources in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab world, presenting self-styled sheikhs who use sophistry to bestow religious authority on a cynical political strategy," writes Amir Taheri in the Wall Street Journal. They are part of a vast network of recruiters who reach out to the children with their perverted messages, often preying on their pre-pubescent imaginations before they have gained any of the strengths of adulthood.
What greater way to give an unformed, ill-prepared, purposeless teen-ager a sense of belonging to something larger than himself than by speciously offering him the approval of Allah? The death announcements of "martyrs" in the Palestinian press read like wedding announcements, written by families who offer a celebration where "blessings will be accepted." The suicide bomber of the disco in Tel Aviv that killed 23 left a will, in which he called for a happy event to commemorate his death: "Call out in joy, oh my mother; distribute sweets, oh my father and brothers."
This is an Orwellian nightmare written in Arabic, where desperation and despair are their own rewards. Self-destruction translates into resistance fighter, vulnerability spells victory, and an untested child can fantasize achievement without having to accomplish anything creative in this world. Such a culture that exploits its children is a menace to all civilizations, and especially to its own.