WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Which is more surprising: that in parts of Araby it is socially approved for the young to strap themselves in explosives and wander into the civilian neighborhoods of Israel for the purpose of blowing everyone nearby sky high, or that Saddam Hussein, the Saudis' interior minister and Yasser Arafat think it right and proper to reward this homicidal behavior? It is a peculiarity of modern times that as the brutality rises to a more atrocious level, we become inured to the atrocity.
I first became aware of our modern tolerance of the intolerable when product-tampering became a social problem. Very few of us here in America expressed the horror that I would have expected at the emergence from within our midst of monsters poisoning consumer products on the shelves of retail outlets for the purpose of extorting money or of redressing some personal grievance. Companies simply created "tamper-proof" packaging and passed the expense on to consumers.
On a more diabolical scale, society seems to have accepted the emergence of the "suicide bomber." Many even accept the pro-Palestinian claims that these murderers are driven to their grisly deeds by "despair" or "desperation" caused by Israel's commitment to its security. Why did other aggrieved peoples not think of this useful expedient? During Nazi occupation, why did the Poles or the Czechs not wrap themselves in explosives and blow up a German officers' hang out? So the suicide bombers are Israel's responsibility. It reminds me of the Cold War, when every effort we made to protect ourselves was seen by the anti-anti-communists as the cause of communist insecurity and militarism.
The calm with which the world witnesses the use of young suicides as instruments of war is startling. It is particularly startling given our many pieties. We are against child labor, and there are boycotts in the Western world against "giant corporations" that employ child labor in the Third World, though such laborers may be bettering themselves financially and living far better than when unemployed and sitting in the dirt of a backward village. We oppose the skin trade, and of course we oppose Third World parents selling their children into slavery. So where is the outrage when the Saudis and Saddam reward Palestinian families whose children commit homicidal suicide? Is it more acceptable to sell one's daughter into suicide than into slavery?
In Araby, these suicides are accepted not merely with serenity but with open admiration. What other civilization has admired human sacrifice? Well, long ago some ancient Chinese favored such grim conclusions, as did the adepts of early Hinduism -- but both groups were only intent on improving the humors of their dyspeptic gods. Among the great civilizations willing to practice human sacrifice, only the Aztecs favored suicide both for religious and military purposes -- and they did it on a grander scale than have the Palestinians, at least so far. In suicidal war and in religious ceremonies, as many as 20,000 Aztecs, historians tell us, sought to please the sun god in happy dispatch, which might also explain why the Aztecs never really had much of a population problem.
So we cannot say that the advent of Palestinian suicide bombers is completely without historic precedent. Aztec warriors occasionally went into battle with the end of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade in mind, and if they did not succeed in battle they might join the young folk on the sun god's altar. Today in Araby, those who indulge in or approve the practices of the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade are in cultural terms at one with 15th century Aztecs. This is a point I have not yet seen in the relaxed commentary on this atrocity. And I have to wonder why.
Is it too disturbing to think that the modern suicide bomber is following a course hitherto only approved of by 15th century aboriginal peoples devoted to the humors of the sun god? Or is it simply that so few modern minds think about the past? In so doing, we have come to accept the grotesque and the macabre as part of life.
In the Egyptian newspaper Al-Wafid, a columnist writes about the anatomical charms of Wafa Indriss (deceased), one of the Palestinian women who broke with Islam's strictures against female participation in public life to become a suicide bomber. Inspired by the published pictures of the four female suicide bombers, the columnist, writes of Indriss' "dreamy eyes and a mysterious smile on her lips." Then he goes on to compare her to the Mona Lisa, though I am sure the local Mullahs' would not approve of this dependence on infidel art.
What will come next in the pages of Al-Wafid? Is our columnist planning a contest, loosely translated as, "Name the Prettiest Suicide Bomber"? Possibly the Aztecs had more respect for human life.