A chilling look at young men embracing death

`Suicide Bombers' puts us face to face with those who kill for land


July 01, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

As the camera pans a bloody tableau of death in the wake of a suicide bus bombing, a young man is heard in voiceover saying, "There is no fear. Just before I blow myself up, I surrender to God. There is no pain. I am blown to pieces. I turn into pieces, and I feel no pain."

Welcome to the mind of the suicide terrorist as explored tonight in "Suicide Bombers," which launches the third season of the Wide Angle documentary series on PBS. The mission of Wide Angle is to go behind the headlines and soundbites of international news coverage to offer the kind of context and understanding not likely to be found elsewhere on television. Mission accomplished in tonight's chilling and illuminating one-hour film told largely in the words of those willing to kill themselves to try to destroy their enemies.

"Suicide Bombers" is built upon a series of interviews with young Palestinians involved in bombing missions against Israel. Director Tom Roberts and producer Israel Goldvicht, working for Britain's Channel 4, gained access to three failed bombers, a bomb maker and a recruiter captured by Israeli security forces. All five are now in Israeli prisons.

Granted, there are numerous journalistic issues connected with any kind of jailhouse interview. They range from the possible manipulation of captives by their jailers to the motives of the prisoners in speaking at all. And, then, there is the question of whether television should be offering a pulpit to those engaged in mass murder. (Remember the controversies surrounding the first network interviews with Charles Manson?)

"Suicide Bombers" does provide counterpoint and context to what the would-be bombers are saying by showing in graphic detail the result of such attacks. The captives are also shown in court and other prison settings. Further, they are challenged during the interviews about killing innocent civilians and causing horrendous suffering in the name of God.

But the ultimate justification for the film is in what it reveals about the mentality and culture of terrorism as practiced in the Middle East. One might be repulsed by what some of these young men say, but their words do offer viewers the chance to see the world through their eyes for a moment - as misguided as their vision might be.

What's most striking at first is how young some of the bombers are. Mohanned Abu Tayyoun is the first to speak. Tayyoun is 18, but he looks even younger than that - like a skinny kid who should be trying out for JV basketball instead of sneaking onto a bus with death strapped around his waist.

Tayyoun has no coherent political philosophy; but it's hard to miss the death rattle in the notes of hopelessness that he sounds. "Palestinians prefer to die - just kill ourselves rather than live this worthless life [under Israeli occupation]," he says. "We are hollow bodies living a pointless life. Here, our lives are full of problems. If I die a martyr, I will live without problems."

He is very specific about how many virgins and rivers of plenty await him in the next life if he dies on a mission against Israel. Someone has done a splendid job of teaching this young man a theology of death. It is part of a pattern that emerges in the interviews: troubled teenage boys being recruited and programmed to kill.

One of those programmers is Majdi Mohammad Amer, a bomb maker who helped train Tayyoun and is charged with helping plot another attack that killed 17 on an Israeli bus. Amer is a portrait of defiance, fervor and hate.

"Don't worry about us, we are made of steel. We drank their blood," he says to a group of Palestinians as he is led into an Israeli courtroom to stand trial for the fatal attack.

"Tell the Israeli people we will keep slaughtering them until they leave our land," he says to the camera on the way out.

Listening to Amer talk about his "holy" right to the land, one is reminded of how the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is ultimately about dueling narratives over a piece of land. Each side defines itself as a people in terms of an ancient, bedrock story line that says the land is theirs - citing no less an authority than God. How can such a fundamental disagreement over identity ever be resolved?

"If the Israelis will not leave, what will you do?" Amer is asked.

"Resistance. Resistance until the end," he says, his eyes blazing.

"Until the end of what?" he is asked.

"The end of life - either mine or his," he says without hesitation. "Either I will die, or he will. There is no other solution."

For all the images of suffering and death in "Suicide Bombers," nothing is more troubling than hearing these words and seeing the look of conviction in Amer's eyes as he says them.

To see a video clip of David Zurawik reviewing the show "Suicide Bombers," go to baltimoresun.com/wideangle.

Suicide Bombers

When: Tonight at 9

Where: MPT (Channels 22, 67)

In brief: A chilling and illuminating look inside the minds of suicide bombers.

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