Arin Ahmed, though already 20, looked like a typical American teen-ager, in tight pants and a short shirt exposing a bare midriff. More like a Methodist, you might say, than a Muslim. She stepped lively along the crowded city sidewalk as though she were on her way to shop with friends at Old Navy.
She was on her way to the Israeli city of Rishon le-Zion, and the bare midriff was only a disguise. She wanted to look brazen and decadent because she wanted to look like one of them. She had a bomb in her backpack.
Arin, fortunately, suddenly got cold feet and an unexpected warm heart to go along with her bare midriff. The would-be suicide bomber looked into the faces of the crowd and saw not hateful Jews, but an aging grandmother, a gurgling baby, a loving father, a teen-ager who looked like a Jewish friend she once had. She saw herself: "I suddenly understood what I was about to do and I said to myself: 'How can I do such a thing?'"
She ran back to her two handlers cowering in a car and told them she was scratching her mission. They were furious, of course. At almost the same moment, a 16-year-old boy, her intended partner in suicide, was blowing himself up like a genuine martyr, sending a shower of nails and screws and bits of sharp metal through the desert air, slicing, dicing, mutilating and maiming. Her disappointed handlers glumly drove her back to Bethlehem.
We know Arin's story because several days later Israeli security forces arrested her and her accomplices, members all of the military (and terrorist) arm of Yasser Arafat's al-Fatah organization. She's in an Israeli jail, where Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer visited her to try to learn what we all want to know. How typical is she? How many like her want to change their minds, but can't? Is there a point of no return? If so, where is it? The answers to such questions are elusive because those who turn back must hide their shame and those who lose the argument with themselves are not around to talk about it.
What's so frightening about this story is its simplicity. Arin isn't a militant, consumed with ideology, as the transcript of an interview in Ha'aretz, the Jerusalem daily, makes clear. She wasn't trained with a terrorist group, nurtured in group hate, determined to erase the enemy and herself. To hear her tell it, she came upon the idea like any university student might suddenly decide to go bungee jumping, get a tattoo or join a street protest.
She was studying computers at Bethlehem University, joining her friends for endless rap sessions over the personal and the political. They complained about the "occupation," Israeli military power and Palestinian poverty and political impotence. She recalled a friend of hers who had recently been killed. "And all of a sudden, I said, 'You know what? I'm going to do a suicide bombing.'"
She looked forward to months of training with like-minded compatriots, but only four days after signing up she hit the jackpot. "Congratulations," said her contact, as though she had won a cruise to Acapulco. "You're going to do a suicide bombing." Arin looks back at her decision as a "momentary stumble."
What she really wants is what we all want, to live a good life, with the small triumphs and disappointments that come with growing up and growing old. "Mr. Minister," she asked of Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, "What will become of me? I have no future. I don't want my whole life to be ruined because of this. I'm at the beginning of life. I changed my mind."
Arin's interview should be posted on the walls of buildings, in universities, schools, even nursery schools that feed Palestinian girls and boys the lies encouraging them toward suicide. It should be read by every Muslim mother as a warning to her children of the cowards who seduce children to an early death.
The Israeli defense minister sensed remorse in Arin. "You start the meeting sitting across from a satanic killing machine and then she tells you her life story and smiles and cries, and you remember that this is a 20- year-old-girl," he says.
President Bush could have had other Arins in mind when he quoted the Bible in his speech outlining the latest attempt to broker what would pass for peace in the Middle East: "I have set before you life and death; therefore choose life." Would that they could.