Review: 'The Price of Paradise' traces the history and impact of the suicide bomb
Iain Overton's new book exploring the phenomenon over the decades is an important read
Iain Overton’s meticulously researched history of the suicide bomber begins with an iron-clad carriage rattling through the snowy streets of St Petersburg on a cloudy spring day in 1881. In a vividly recounted scene, a bomb is thrown under the wagon in which Tsar Alexander II is travelling after reviewing his Imperial Horse Guards. Amid the chaos, the Russian emperor exits the carriage nearly unscathed after what is the eighth assassination attempt against him during his reign. But rather than flee, he remains to survey the damage.
That delay proves fatal as another assassin enters the fray. The young revolutionary, Ignaty Grinevitsky, seems aware that the price of success will be his own life. He tosses another bomb and the explosion kills both the tsar and himself. The age of the suicide bomber has begun.
Overton’s book moves from anarchist ideas of the “propaganda of the deed” to the final days of the Second World War, when thousands of Japanese kamikaze pilots are hurling themselves against US warships in suicidal waves. Through the analogy of a virus, and concrete historical examples, Overton illustrates how each generation of suicide bombers has been influenced and often even instructed by earlier proponents of the phenomenon.
Iranian Basij brigades during the war with Iraq inspire Hezbollah militants, whose use of the tactic influences Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers. Each chapter involves an engaging mix of historical and contemporary reportage as Overton, an investigative journalist, visits locations with connections to suicide bombings.
By the time Overton’s book reaches the present, it is clear suicide bombing has truly come of age: he reports that in 2016 there were a total of 469 suicide bombings carried out in 28 countries. Turning to why men, and some women, choose self- annihilation, Overton lays out a convincing case that religious fervour is but one motivation among many.
Marshalling impressive quantities of data, he takes the reader beyond the stereotype of the suicide bomber to examine motivators such as mental illness and anger at foreign occupation and government abuses. The motivations for violent suicide operate in a complex matrix, and no one cause can be pinned down as the ultimate trigger.
One commonality recurs across time and place: the belief, no matter how misguided, that the action of self-annihilation is altruistic and will somehow contribute to heralding in a better world. But the effects of suicide bombing are entirely negative, and in the second half of the book Overton looks at the immense cost such terror attacks have imposed on modern societies.
To date, about 72,000 people worldwide have been killed in suicide attacks, and about double that number have been injured. But the cost extends far beyond the toll bombers have exacted on their victims. The responses of governments to extremism have shaped our world. The emotional impact of men flying planes into buildings, or detonating themselves in public places, has impelled states to start wars, bomb foreign countries and curtail freedoms as populations turn inward and start to fear the other.
Embassies worldwide are fortified, police militarised and airport security increased, while surveillance and drone strikes are justified by the need to defend against a nearly undetectable enemy. “Man’s response to these attacks have been more violent, more destructive, than the deeds themselves,” Overton writes. “In that overstep we have ended up doubly paying for the martyr’s act in many hidden and unexpected ways.”
Man’s response to these attacks have been more violent, more destructive, than the deeds themselves. In that overstep we have ended up doubly paying for the martyr’s act in many hidden and unexpected ways.
These sections firmly discredit suicide bombing as a legitimate tactic of the oppressed. After 14 chapters outlining the complexities of suicide bombings and the failed responses to them, it should be clear that there is no easy solution to one of the most vexing challenges to the state’s monopoly on violence.
However, Overton, who also runs the research charity Action on Armed Violence, makes a valiant effort to provide a prescription. His suggestions include the concrete and the aspirational. Seeking a global ban on suicide bombing could help attract funding and stigmatise the practice, even by those who are not signatories to a treaty.
Likewise, appealing to religious authorities to condemn suicide bombings could help delegitimise the strategy. But ultimately, while global injustices are unaddressed and states focus on retributive justice, suicide bombings will terrorise societies. Defusing them would involve listening to the grievances of those who might support them, something precious few in power are prepared to countenance.
Being asked to consider love and empathy as a response to violent murder may be a tall order for readers, which in itself serves as an effective illustration of the difficulty inherent in combating suicide attacks. In the absence of such radical responses, though, it seems inevitable that suicide bombers will continue to shape the age we live in.
Updated: July 16, 2019 05:22 PM