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Not-so-divine wind

Posted at Crooked Timber.

Recently I was explaining to a French friend the arguments we have in English over whether to call people “suicide bombers”, or “suicide murderers”, or “martyrdom bombers”, or even (for Fox fans) “homicide bombers”. “What do you call them in French?” I asked. She smiled somewhat apologetically and said: “Oh, we just call them kamikazes.” I was intrigued by the analogy, and now Freeman Dyson has argued for it explicitly in the New York Review of Books. . .

We have no firsthand testimony from the young men who carried out the September 11 attacks. They were not as highly educated and as thoughtful as the kamikaze pilots, and they were more influenced by religion. But there is strong evidence that they were not brainwashed zombies. They were soldiers enlisted in a secret brotherhood that gave meaning and purpose to their lives, working together in a brilliantly executed operation against the strongest power in the world. According to Sageman, they were motivated like the kamikaze pilots, more by loyalty to their comrades than by hatred of the enemy. Once the operation had been conceived and ordered, it would have been unthinkable and shameful not to carry it out.

Even after recognizing the great differences between the circumstances of 1945 and 2001, I believe that the kamikaze diaries give us our best insight into the state of mind of the young men who caused us such grievous harm in 2001. If we wish to understand the phenomenon of terrorism in the modern world, and if we wish to take effective measures to lessen its attraction to idealistic young people, the first and most necessary step is to understand our enemies. We must give respect to our enemies, as courageous and capable soldiers enlisted in an evil cause, before we can understand them.

Analysts who prefer to think of those who commit acts of terrorism as evil madmen will splutter, but does Dyson have a point? Of course, some historical analogies are more useful than others. British rapper Aki Nawaz has made a bit more of a stretch to show his respect, producing an album in which, according to the Guardian, Osama bin Laden is compared to Che Guevara. I must say I like Nawaz’s re-spelling of “jihad” as “G-had”, at least: a witty riposte to the temporary renaming of the “war on terror” as G-SAVE last year.

One comment
  1. 1  Sohail  July 2, 2006, 11:53 pm 

    Dear Steve

    Thank you for this illuminating post and not least of all your refreshing and penetrating analysis. Until now, I had absolutely no idea of the linguistic complexities involved until of course you completely cleared away the layers and layers of distortion with your usual unprecedented clarity.

    Well, I’m not sure how I might reciprocate your tireless efforts, but do let me try. Though I cannot tell you how this peculiar linguistic curiosity might be rendered in Punjabi, Swahili, Gujarati or indeed Serbo-Croat I can however tell you that after my recent encounter with a distinguished Neapolitan pizzaiolo, I was told – much to my surprise – that the Italians also prefer to use the term “kamikaze” as in “‘sto kamikaze di Bagdad ha ammazzato un muchio di gente!”.

    And wasn’t Zidane great last night?



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