Shock: the mind of a suicide bomber

Many think of suicide bombers as insane, or motivated by pure religious fervor. The reality may not be quite so simple.


Chris Hedges, journalist writing for Harpers, described life 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.”

Chris Hedges, A Gaza Diary, scenes from the Palestinian uprising, Harper’s Magazine, October 2001

Nasra Hassan, interviewed hundreds of volunteer suicide bombers in her article for the New Yorker, who are otherwise considered “model youth” in their communities. She shows that suicide bombers have suffered humiliation and persecution at the hands of Israeli forces. She 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.”

Nasra Hassan, Letter from Gaza: An Arsenal of Believers, The New Yorker, November 19, 2001

The setting is one of pain and suffering, 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 starting point of desperation and terror, and here is where “Shock,” a theatre performance by the Belgian group “De Queeste” starts unraveling the complex realities that lead someone to use suicide as a weapon.

Watching “Shock”, performed by Belgian actors Stijn van Opstal, Joris van den Brande (right) and Helena van den Berge, is like listening to angry, confused and frustrated Palestinian refugees and a mother who lost her daughter in a suicide attack. They tell the story of the conflict.

Starting point of this production is getting inside the mind of a Palestinian suicide bomber. It is an attempt to explain what has made him tick. Through newspapers, witnesses, websites and other material “De Queeste” tries to understand the people behind the shockwaves and reconstruct their motivations.

Acting mixed with visual images of the conflict. The play starts with video material showing an interview with the late Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who staunchly objected to the occupation and who argued that the occupation morally destroys the conqueror.

Stijn van Opstal and Joris van den Brande portray a young Palestinian who tells his story. He speaks his mind, politics, life, oppression, anger, hope, destroyed hope, confusion, and finally the moment when he is forced to do something. Throughout the performance a mix of political history is combined with a set of emotions, individual and collective, interrupted with images from oppression and uprising.

During the one hour performance, actors show that we are living in a political age. Citing Polish poet Wistawa Szymborska, it actors try to explain that

“all day long, all through the night, all affairs - yours, ours, theirs - are political affairs. Whether you like it or not, your genes have a political past, your skin, a political cast, your eyes, a political slant. Whatever you say reverberates, whatever you don’t say speaks for itself.”

Combining political, individual and collective memories, the performance explains that when one is totally overwhelmed by an oppressive power, the will and urgency to act does not disappear.

According to Palestinian psychologist Eyad Sarraj “there is an inverse relationship between suicide bombing and hope.” He explained that desperation propels people to actions or solutions that previously would have been unthinkable.

“Suicide bombings and all these forms of violence are only the symptoms, the reaction to this chronic and systematic process of humiliating people in effort to destroy their hope and dignity.”

Suicide bombers: Dignity, despair, and the need for hope, an interview with Eyad Sarraj, Journal of Palestine Studies, Summer 2002, Issue 124

Helena van den Berge (left) portrays a young Israeli mother, Nurit Peled-Elhanan, who lost her daughter Smadar (13) in an suicide bombing at the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall. In September 1997, she blamed the Israeli government for the attack. “The government breeds the terrorists. They start them off. They fertilize them,” she argued. “They’re the ones stealing the land, destroying the houses, uprooting the trees, erasing the villages. They’re starving them, humiliating them, oppressing them,” she said.

Smadar’s grandfather was the late Maj. Gen. Mattityahu Peled, a military commander and politician, who supported military conscientious objection to serving in the occupied territories and in Lebanon.

The Belgian group “De Queeste” has made theatre about themes of today, about issues and questions that keep us from sleeping at night, about the world in which we live. Their attempt to unravel the mind, symptoms and consequences of day-to-day violence and oppression in Palestine succeeds.

Related Links:

  • Shock (html | flash)
  • Suicide bombers: Dignity, despair, and the need for hope, an interview with Eyad Sarraj, Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol XXXI, No. 4, Summer 2002, Issue 124
  • A Gaza Diary, scenes from the Palestinian uprising, Chris Hedges, Harper’s Magazine, October 2001
  • Letter from Gaza: An Arsenal of Believers, Nasra Hassan, The New Yorker, November 19, 2001