The Morality of Suicide Bombings

The bombing last week in Damascus that killed Syrian Defense Minister Daoud Rajiha, internal security chief Hafez Makhlouf, and Deputy Defense Minister Asef Shawkat (who also happened to be the brother-in-law of President Bashar al-Assad), was a major turning point in the Syrian civil war. By striking at the heart of the country’s security apparatus, the rebels demonstrated that they have earned the support of high-ranking defectors within the regime. But it is the nature of the attack—alleged to have been a suicide bomb—that brings to the fore an interesting debate about morality in warfare.

Writing at Commentary, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow and war historian Max Boot says that, while “it is hard not to see some element of cosmic justice” in the killing of men responsible for the ongoing slaughter of countless civilians, “it is hard to take much satisfaction in the manner of their demise. For suicide bombing is never the weapon of the moderate.” Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic echoes this sentiment, warning that “suicide bombing is a leading indicator of societal collapse.” UK Defense Secretary William Hague condemned the bombing outright. It remains unclear at this point whether or not last week’s attack was indeed a suicide bomb, but, for the sake of argument, let’s assume it was: would that affect its morality?

There are really two questions here: the practical one of what a suicide bombing portends, and the metaphysical one of whether or not a suicide bombing can ever be justified. The answer to the first, I believe, hinges upon the person who decided to take his own life in the process of taking the lives of those whom Goldberg correctly identifies as “war criminals.” If the suicide bomber is a member of al-Qaeda or a like-minded jihadist organization, then that would indeed be a disturbing sign of the increasing influence of Islamic extremists over the Syrian revolution.

But suicide bombing is not necessarily a tactic anywhere and everywhere employed by Islamic fanatics. We don’t know the logistics of operation, but perhaps there was no other way, other than through the taking of his own life, for the Damascus bomber to kill his targets. In that case, his “suicide” should be seen as one of martyrdom and not religious salvation. People throughout history have sacrificed their lives through violence for worthy goals—the Union cause in the American Civil War is an obvious example—and while their tactic might not have been the suicide bomb, is there much difference, in effect, with the man who rushes towards enemy lines from the front of a column?

As for the morality of the act, what determines it is the cause in which it is employed and whom it is employed against. A suicide bombing against Israeli civilians on a tour bus in Bulgaria (which occurred on the same day last week as the attack in Damascus) is unquestionably evil. As is the kamikaze pilot who crashes his plane into an American warship on behalf of the Emperor Hirohito and Japanese imperialism. A suicide bomb detonated amidst Bashar Assad’s coven of mass-murderers is an act of heroic sacrifice.

I find myself closer in opinion, therefore, to Conrad Black, who says, “The fact that the enemies of our enemies can turn the nastiest and most anti-civilized tactics on those who have been sanctimoniously employing them for years against the West is an objectively good phenomenon.” He raises the important historical example of the German colonel Claus von Stauffernberg, who, had he been willing to sacrifice his own life in the murder plot against Adolph Hitler, would have likely succeeded, thus sparing the world much more death and destruction. But because Stauffenberg left the building in which he had placed a briefcase bomb next to Hitler, rather than stay and move it next to the dictator as he sauntered across the room, Hitler survived and the plot was foiled. Stauffenberg, of course, died anyway (along with his co-conspirators), when he was executed the very next day by firing squad.


Photo Credit: Bo yaser

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