I believed it, you believed it, we all believed it: During the holidays, suicide deaths increase. But it's not true. In fact, daily suicides are at their lowest in November and December.
So what would make someone start a rumor like that? Perhaps it reflects are deepest fears. Maybe it's a warning not to take the people in our lives for granted.
One thing I can tell you, common myths aside, death by suicide is a politically divisive issue. Do you have the right to kill, even when you're both the victim and executioner?
Our definition and understanding of suicide is very often tainted by politics, even though suicide itself is relatively straightforward -- self-murder that receives the death penalty.
Now compound the "politics of suicide" with a suicide death that takes the lives of others and intersects with patriotism, Zionism, terrorism, and colonialism. For example, the recent suicide bombings in Israel. Here you have all the makings of a political feedbag; any appeal to psychology must be carefully scrutinized and understood within a socio-political context.
Yet, many writers are pointing to factors in the so-called psychology of suicide bombers. These factors include low social status, religious fanaticism, and personality disorders. But suicide bombers often come from middle class and even wealthy families, according to Nasra Hassan who interviewed hundreds of volunteer suicide bombers in her article for the New Yorker, and are otherwise considered "model youth" in their communities.
If we believe that personality disorders play a role, they are most likely not organic disorders, and religious fundamentalism is not an inevitable outcome. Both stem from concrete social conditions.
That, of course, doesn't stop commentators from taking suicide bombings out of context and using them to gain political capital -- something akin to picking up shrapnel after an explosion and tossing it at the crowd.
Perhaps the most famous Israeli-Palestinian demagogue is former Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. Before the US House Government Reform Committee, shortly after September 11, Netanyahu declared that "Palestinian Islamic terrorist groups made repeated use of the technique of suicide bombing, going so far as to run summer camps in Gaza that teach Palestinian children how to become suicide martyrs."
Hamas uses suicide bombing as a tactic, obviously, and that should be opposed. But what about terror "summer camps" for children? In later television interviews Netanyahu shortens this already suspect statement to "suicide kindergarten camps," further confounding the issue.
Chris Hedges, a war-seasoned journalist writing for Harpers, describes another kind of "suicide kindergarten camp" for Palestinian children in the refugee camp of Khan Younis:
Yesterday, at this spot the Israelis shot eight young men, six of whom were under the age of 18. One was 12. This afternoon they kill an 11-year-old boy, Ali Murad, and seriously wound four more, three of whom are under 18. Children have been shot in other conflicts I have covered -- death squads gunned them down in El Salvador and Guatemala, mothers with infants were lined up and massacred in Algeria, and Serb snipers put children in their sights and watched them crumple onto the pavement in Sarajevo -- but I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport.
This is but one incident and, as a rule, Israeli soldiers don't make a "sport" out of murdering Palestinian children. However, Hassan shows in her New Yorker article that many suicide bombers have suffered humiliation and persecution and the hands of Israeli forces.
Hassan writes, "Many of the volunteers [for suicide bombing] and the members of their family told stories of persecution, including beatings and torture, suffered at the hands of Israeli forces."
Pain and suffering alone do not create a suicide bomber; they must be coupled with an environment where there is no outlet to express that pain and suffering. Israeli forces quash any legitimate redress of Palestinian woes, delegitimizing peaceful dissent. Here we have the makings of desperation and terror, and here is where we may start unraveling the complex realities that lead someone to use suicide as a weapon.
Dr. Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, said in an interview with the Palestine-Israel Journal, "The way Israel responded to the confrontations has only helped to sustain the Intifada. The excessive use of force, the collective punishment, the closure, the economic sanctions, all these have contributed to the delegitimization of the peace process even more, and along with it, to the delegitimization of the Palestinian Authority (PA) itself."
Now Primer Minster Ariel Sharon -- well known for his brutal methods in Israel's war in Lebanon -- is declaring war on the Palestinian Authority. Israeli fighter jets and tanks are taking revenge for suicide bombers, promising to create more scorn and hatred amongst Palestinians. Retaliation and further escalation is seemingly inevitable, but should we continue to buy suspicious statements about psychology and suicide bombers?
Myths about suicide bombers are as common as myths about suicide in general. The goal (if I haven't made this clear) is to end both suicide and suicide bombings. In the case of suicide bombers, such a goal requires a contextual look at the realities of suicide bombers' daily life, not inflammatory remarks and massive retaliation. Otherwise, the myth that suicide deaths increase during the holidays will become a painful reality.
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