09 February 2008

An American Terrorist?

In everything I've read about the Kirkwood massacre in the past two days I've noticed a consistent omission. We have a man storming City Hall, wounding the mayor and killing other members of the local government, before he was shot down, and the media treats the story as if it were from the same genre as most school shootings. I do not see Cookie Thornton called an "assassin" or a "terrorist." Why is that?

I can make up an explanation of my own: Thornton didn't have a really "political" agenda. His grievance appears to be based on parking tickets. There was clearly no cause larger than himself involved. Since he apparently left a note signifying that his attack was meant to be suicide-by-cop, the incident can't be considered a means to a further end. For that reason it would probably be inaccurate to call him a terrorist. But he committed political murder. So why isn't he an assassin? Again, I think it's because people think of an assassin as having an cause larger than himself. Thorton's grievance doesn't seem to rise to the level of the political in many minds, I guess.

In any event, the Kirkwood incident raised anew a question I've been asking myself recently about the mentality of American mass murderers vs. the mentality of Muslim terrorists. I've often wondered why Americans don't emulate terrorist methods. Since so many expect to die anyway, and seek to maximize their victims, why have none yet thought to put on a suicide belt and stroll into the school cafeteria or the office lunch room or the middle of the mall? Mightn't Thornton have come closer to his presumed goal if he had been able to set off a nail bomb in his final act? Instead, he came in with gun blazing, like so many of his American peers.

The preference for the gun over the bomb, and for suicide-by-cop over suicide-bombing, points to a cultural difference between Americans and Muslims and/or Arabs. The suicide bomber seems to be satisfied with the thought that he will have done damage without having to see it. The archetypical school shooter, or someone like Thornton, appears to need the satisfaction of seeing people go down before he does. For all that he supposedly hates his enemies, the Muslim "martyr" doesn't need to see his victims suffer. That may be one reason why they can convince themselves that they're performing a selfless act, and that it's martyrdom first, murder second. If he hates the American or Zionist occupier or the local sectarian enemy, it's a different kind of hate from what the American mass murderer feels. More likely, the Muslim simply views his victims as "the enemy," the way any soldier does, while the American killer is usually acting out some more personal, more virulent grudge.

There are similarities between the two types as well. The most noteworthy one is the quest for notoriety. Someone like Seung-hui Cho, who videotaped a last testament during his killing spree, clearly wants to be remembered, while the typical Muslim terrorist organization has its own publicity apparatus to issue farewell videos from the latest martyrs and otherwise memorialize the alleged heroes. In each country, however, a different fame is aimed at. The suicide-bomber wants to be the hero of the masses, and to be thought of as some sort of saint, while the school shooter appeals to posterity in the form of a sub- or counter-culture, either indifferent or welcoming toward the notion that mainstream society will remember him as a monster.

A question I can't try to answer is whether the suicide bomber is ultimately motivated to kill for reasons like those that drive the mass murderer. I have no idea whether the Muslim reaches a point where he "can't stands no more," as Popeye might say, and as the American presumably does, or whether martyrdom is so socialized or organized that the martyr doesn't even choose the time or means of his end himself. Even if the latter is true, you have to wonder what inspires someone to make him or herself available for martyrdom, whether it's a breaking-point moment when he decides that his circumstances are unendurable or it's actually some sort of ethical decision to sacrifice his life for a cause.

Ask yourself a question if you like: leaving aside semantics and labels like "murderer," "terrorist," or "assassin," who is really more evil, presuming that term means anything to you? Is it the person who slaughters innocents along with himself, in the expectation that he will go to heaven, or someone who slaughters innocents while waiting to die, maybe while holding out hope of escape, but more likely not really caring what happens to anyone afterward? Leaving numbers aside, who was worse, Mohammed Atta or Seung-hui Cho? The 9/11 hijackers as a group or the Columbine killers? If your answer surprises you, try asking yourself some more questions, if you can figure those out for youselves.


crhymethinc said...

Who are the heroes each group emulates? In American we grow up in a society steeped in "violence". We treat criminals such as Billy the Kid or Bonnie and Clyde as heroes. Our cultural perspective is that these people were standing up for their rights/beliefs/desires against an oppressive establishment. The television shows and movies we watch as children thru adulthood echo these themes. Heroes who stand up for themselves/families...guns blazing. Even if they die in the attempt, it's always a win for them because they take the "bad guys" out with them.

To us, violence is the solution to the problem.

My guess is that Islamist suicide bombers have a different set of heroes and role-models. I wouldn't be surprised to find that in their culture, people speak highly of such "martyrs". But I also seem to recall that during the seventies, most middle-eastern terrorist were not suicide bombers -- they were just bombers or shooters. I'm pretty sure the suicide-bomber thing is pretty recent.

Samuel Wilson said...

It is recent. The Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka, who are Hindus, are credited with the innovation,but the Muslims picked up on it quickly. What the tactic says about Tamil culture I'm not prepared to say. Your points about America are well-made and make up for conscious omissions on my part. I thought of discussing movies like The Wild Bunch or Scarface, which demonstrate exactly what you're saying. This may be something at the very root of "Western" culture if you take the story of Thermopylae at face value, even without the exaggerations of the movie 300. For America the Alamo story serves the same purpose. The object is always to take out as many as you can before you die, while for the Muslim (and the Tamil?)it seems to be to take out as many as you can in the act of dying. The emphasis makes a difference but the difference is still open to definition.

crhymethinc said...

Or even if it is an important difference, since the similarity seems to be to "take out as many as you can". Perhaps this says something about human nature in general?

Samuel Wilson said...

You can make a general point but the cultural differences still intrigue me. After all, if the archetypical school shooter wants to take out as many people as he can, he could probably take out the most by wearing a suicide belt and walking into the cafeteria at lunch hour. He can probably learn how to make one on the Internet. But to date, no one in the U.S. has tried this; they prefer to go in shooting. This makes me suspect that there's more to it, for the American at least, than taking out as many as he can. It may have something to do with a sense of power that the Muslim may not share.