“The most brutal form of terrorism is the suicide bomb, where you sacrifice your life for a cause. That kind of thing, I don’t think has an antidote in the world today. America hasn’t found it, nor has Britain, nor has any other country: an answer to the human bomb.” These remarks were made by Harry Goonetileile, a former Sri Lankan Air Force Chief, in Ilan Ziv’s documentary,Human Weapon (2002).
According to Ziv, Goonetileile’s Sri Lanka is the country where suicide bombing “came of age” as a “powerful new weapon of the poor”: one which has allowed the Tamil Tigers, a separatist army of 10,000, to achieve a “strategic parity” with the state’s 200,000 troops. Tens of thousands of civilians have died in the clash, even though the Tamil Tigers never directly targeted non-combatants. This escalation of civilian casualties came with the maturation of suicide bombing, a phenomenon that Ziv insists must be viewed as a new weapon, one of unique creation and impact. Ziv’s prophesy for developments that come after Sri Lanka are dim: “In the next phase of the evolution of the Human Weapon, no one will be spared.”
Sri Lankan Martyrs’ Cemetary (Human Weapon, Ilan Ziv, 2002)
The movie, which was filmed in Iran, Palestine, Israel, Sri Lanka, Europe, and the United States, traces the history of suicide bombing from its birth in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, to its inescapable presence in Israel and Palestine today. With historical precedents in the Japanese Kamikaze pilots of World War II and Ireland’s “martyred” hunger strikers, suicide bombing evolved since 1983, as it passed through the hands of theIranian Bassiji movement, Lebanese guerrillas, Sri Lankan separatists, and the far-ranging bases of today’s Islamic Jihadists.
Tens of thousands of Iranian boys and young men volunteered as members of the Bassiji—“The Mobilized”—during the country’s eight-year war with Iraq. Training under the Ayatollah Khomeini, they were steeped in a culture of martyrdom and their adolescent sensuality and religious fervor transformed into aggression and a desire for self-sacrifice, with thousands of the young soldiers competing for the opportunity to clear minefields with their bodies. Mendi Haeri, an exiled Iranian theologian, explains one motivation in Human Weapon: “Khomeini promised them in paradise what he couldn’t deliver on this earth. A world filled with gardens, castles and beautiful angels; everything is free, no need to work. But all of this was nonsense, there is no such thing in Islam.”
Hizbollah Day of Shah Parade (Human Weapon, Ilan Ziv, 2002)
Robert Baer, a former CIA agent who investigated the embassy bombing in Beirut, notes that the building could have been destroyed by a conventional, planted bomb, and that the choice to instead use an anonymous suicide bomber was calculated for the psychological damage it would add. “It’s the same reason they did the World Trade Center. Having twenty people, or ultimately nineteen, flying planes into national landmarks is psychological warfare. And having people commit suicide is as strong as the attack.”
It is, to Ziv, an apocalyptic form of violence: aimed at no achievable political goals but the destruction of a society’s psyche. His film includes the testimony of an Israeli doctor, one of many improvising medical protocol for the new forms of injury caused by suicide bombers. “There is always another attack, it never lets you disconnect from it. You enter a weird world in which on one hand, you treat the wounded, and on the other hand you are in a never ending nightmare that repeats itself every day.”
Ziv, who was born in Israel, has been making documentaries of countries in crisis for twenty years. In February, he spoke with Islam scholar Kristin Sands and New York University’s Center for Religion and Media about Human Weapon, suicide bombers’ religious roots and made-for-media ambitions.
Kristin Sands: What were the origins of Human Weapon for you as a filmmaker?
Ilan Ziv: When I started it, it was before September 11th. I felt incredibly attacked intellectually. I felt there was something new there that no one was really addressing. Both before and after September 11th. People were describing [the attacks] as outside of humanity. [But] it is human. We know that we can train a human being to do almost anything. It’s a question of the structure they’re recruited into. This is where you get into the nuances of the local place, culture, religion. That’s what I think of as the mechanism of recruitment. For me, all this description of religion really falls short.
KS: So religion is just one element?
IZ: I think religion is being used as a recruitment tool, drawing on the culture of martyrdom. If my culture believes in heaven, it helps to break the taboo of death. [Martyrdom] has been used to create the myth of liberation, but really Hezbollah was a conventional guerrilla movement.
KS: Is there anything new in attacking civilians?
IZ: It’s extremely new. The privatization involved. Violence has been a state property. And the state created horrific violence — Hiroshima, the carpet bombing of Germany, the fire bombing of Tokyo. Killing civilians was the property of the state: Militaries acting on behalf of a state. The taboo was broken long before suicide bombers. This kind of killing of civilians as a policy has been privatized.
KS: It’s not the attacking of civilians, it’s who’s doing the attacking?
IZ: I break so many taboos when I become a suicide bomber. When America fire-bombed Tokyo it was part of some strategic [plan]. I think this nihilism is very new. It’s not the number that I kill, it’s the political statement I make when I kill.
KS: What’s so disturbing about the “goodbye” martyr videos that the bombers make before missions?
IZ: That they keep calling themselves the “living martyrs.” When they make the videos, they’re already dead. So they’re speaking to you from some gray area between here and death. I’ve seen people cross this border very happily.
KS: They’re proud, and they’re immortal.
IZ: Yes, they’re already dead because [they say] “By the time you see this film I’m dead.” The tapes are primarily for public consumption. The primary audience is television. I had this amazing footage from Lebanon for a rehearsal for a final speech. It was a very mechanistic type of rehearsal: take 1, take 2, take 3. The text is generated by the movement to be read by the individual. It’s all text written for them. It’s not an individual effort, it’s a movement. The individual is the recruit. The rehearsal part fascinates me.
KS: I was struck by the strangeness of watching a little boy who’s watching his father on the video.
IZ: There was a clear choice in the film to use graphic imagery, i.e., heads rolling on the ground. This was a very conscious choice. You have to understand what suicide bombing does to people before you can discuss it. Everyone, every victim that comes out of this is infected because they saw something that they should not have. Everyone who was at the World Trade Center is infected, and they go and infect others. Infected with fear, with rage, and all of this gels into political changes. To see what it does to a body. I think that’s important. It desecrates the human body.
This kind of a film is more of an essay than a sensitive anthropological examination of a particular city, group, etc. I think in every film it’s very important to understand the story you’re trying to tell. In this case, it’s telling about a new weapon. It was important for me that you experience what these people felt existentially. What they’re doing to themselves.
If you live in a Palestinian cage in the West Bank, you feel very martyred and you want to kill as many people as you can. But if you have a son and he’s born into a cage, he wants to know why we have been living in cages for 500 years.
Human beings cannot live for decades without a political solution. But we are going to live through those decades I think, until this [human] weapon goes out of chic.
I’m trying to be optimistic.
Kristin Sands is a lecturer in Arabic language and Islam at New York University and a member of the Center for Religion and Media. Kathryn Joyce is associate editor of The Revealer.