Michael Roberts

Over the centuries some individuals have revealed a remarkable quality of selflessness in their commitment to a cause. Even where this has involved massive killings, the zealousness cannot be questioned. Whether in suicidal act of assassination or as soldier for state or revolutionary cell, the roots supporting their fervency of purpose becomes a field of inquiry.

This determined intensity of commitment is seen within the acts of mass suicide as in the case of Jonestown, Guyana in November 1978 and the “Heaven’s Gate” (Nike) suicides in California in March 1997; and also applies to some of the operations of the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Western Germany, the Red Brigade in Italy, the Sekigun (Red Army) of Japan in the late 60s/70s and the Aum Shinrikyo of the 1980s/90s. Again, such steadfastness in ideological goal apparently fortified the equanimity with which Timothy McVeigh faced the fate of capital punishment when brought to book for his atrocious act of bombing in Oklahoma.

Liberal humanism, the dominant ideology within academic corridors, has struggled to engage with such zeal, especially when it is associated with nationalist goals and religious fundamentalism in settings beyond the West. I believe that one of its difficulties lies within the individualist epistemology embedded within the secularised Christian universe. Another difficulty derives from the popularity of psycho-babble in Western circles.

These and other difficulties have been evident ever since 9/11 produced an explosion of writing on “suicide bombers” and “suicide terrorism”. These terms have since become part of a vocabulary that de-legitimizes the goals of Islamic radicals who pursue their goals through what they themselves call “martyrdom operations”.

A veritable propaganda war is taking place at the moment. Where the hegemony of Western state interests prevails, as I discovered in exchanges with an academic journal recently, one is expected to abide by these condemnatory labels. I refuse to do so because all sides in most conflicts have indulged in acts that terrorize civilian populations; but also because of a desire to distance myself from ethical debates and image-building of a propagandist character.

Moreover, both labels, “suicide bombers” and “suicide terrorism”, deflect one away from my central interest in the force of selfless sacrifice for a cause that seems to motivate individuals on suicide missions, whether a cause that has been largely defined by the activist (as, say, with Nathuram Godse, the killer of Mahatma Gandhi in 1949 or with Yukio Mishima, the Japanese novelist who committed seppuku in protest in 1970) or a cause defined by an organisation which one has joined.

Moreover, with the LTTE in Sri Lanka these labels deflect attention away from the fact that the Tigers established the idea of defensive suicide as a fundamental oath for all their fighters from 1983/84 onwards. Each fighter commits himself or herself to biting a cyanide capsule (kuppi) when on the verge of capture – in order to avoid torture and to protect the LTTE. At their passing out parade each fighter receives a capsule as emblem-cum-seal of induction after the body of personnel has repeated this chant in unison in response to their commander’s initial prompt:

“Our revolutionary organisation’s purified aim
is for a free society to achieve Tamil Eelam
My life and soul and all this I sacrifice to
our organisation’s leader, our brother, Mr Prabhākaran
We fully accept that for him we will be very faithful and trustworthy
The aim of the Tigers – Tamils’ freedom.”
(BBC Inside Story Series, “Suicide Killers”, 1991)

On this occasion the Australian Tigress, Adele Balasingham, told the BBC In matter of fact style that “the cyanide capsule has come to symbolise a sense of self-sacrifice by cadres of the movement, their determination, their commitment to the cause, and ultimately, of course, their courage.” Note that the LTTE leader, Prabhākaran indicated that he himself had adopted the idea of carrying a cyanide vial for protective purposes at a much earlier date (his comment in BBC documentary, 1991). One can add that he had probably been inspired to adopt the device by the act of cyanide suicide committed by Ponnudurai Sivakumāran (pre-LTTE) on his own initiative in 1974 (Roberts 2007).

As stressed by many scholars, there is tactical advantage when an organisation adopts the method of suicide bombers as a form of attack or assassination. It is a low-cost precision weapon and it is or this reason that it has been adopted by parties to a warring conflict who are outgunned and in a position of relative weakness. But the pragmatic utilitarian advantages of such weaponry, whether in defence or in attack, must not be permitted to obscure the manner in which such action is valorised by segments of the population for whose (alleged) benefit the conflict is being waged. This appreciative reception points to cultural ingredients in the context that must, therefore, have guided both the organisation and those members who committed suicide — whether in defence (of comrades), in protest (as with Thilīpan and Annai Pupati of the LTTE) or in attack.

It is in order to focus on selflessness, the differing ways of expressing selflessness and the different cultural contexts conditioning such ways that I have argued for the use of the concept “sacrificial devotion” as an overarching umbrella term for our studies and debates. In this usage the term “devotion” does not necessarily embrace a religious dimension, but certainly connotes reverence for a cause and thus to selfless dutifulness.

As an umbrella term “sacrificial devotion” suggests that there may be commonalities in most contexts that we propose to draw into our comparative studies. But that does not preclude significant differences. For instance, it has been argued that the concept of “sacrifice” is deployed in different ways in the Christian realms from that of the Islamic Arab world (Asad 2007: 44-45). Likewise, during the World War II “neither the [kamikaze] pilots themselves nor the Japanese public considered their acts to be acts of suicide” (Ohnuki-Tierney 2007: 17). Indeed, there are three different words in the Japanese language to refer to suicide and two of them “suggest an honorable or laudable act done in the public interest.” Thus, among the Japanese “suicide …does not have the immoral connotation… that it has in the English language” (Axell & Kase 2002: 4).

The focus, then, is upon the meaningful world from which the perpetrators of zealous action, whether organisational or individual, spring. This world is at once political and cultural in the widest – and intertwining – meaning of both terms. The political imperatives are usually threaded by cultural ingredients of a specific kind. “Sacrificial devotion” is one of the tools that can be deployed to explore the enabling capacity provided by each set of cultural ingredients in dynamic process over time.

My special interest has been in the comparison of selfless commitment to cause displayed in the three contexts surrounding the Japanese kamikaze, the Tamil Tiger fighters (1976 onwards) and the radical Islamic shahāda (in all their regional variety) of the contemporary era. To the extent that we can generalize, it is my hunch that different cultural conceptions of personhood animate the zealous activists in the three different settings.

Since the term shahāda translates as “martyrs” and since the use of the term māvīrar (literally “great hero”) is also glossed within LTTE representations in English as “martyr,” this comparative sweep therefore promises to be a study of martyrdom in both diachronic and synchronic sweep. At the same time, however, the comparative focus that is pursued here implicates the difference between “hero” and martyr” in the Western world. The Battle of Britain fighter pilots are said to have “sacrificed their lives” to protect Britain, but these heroes are not conventionally depicted as “martyrs.” Why? This issue — and like ones — are going to be among the by-products of the line of inquiry mooted in this forum.

Michael Roberts

Asad, Talal 2007 On suicide Bombing, New York: Colombia University Press.
Axell, Albert and Hideaki Kase 2002 Kamikaze. Japan’s Suicide Gods, London: Pearson
BBC 1991 “Suicide Killers,” Inside story series.
Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 2002 Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The
Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko 2006 Kamikaze Diaries: Reflections of Student Soldiers, Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
Roberts, Michael 2007 “Suicide Missions as Witnessing: Expansions, Contrasts,” due in
Studies in Conflict & Terrorism October 2007, 30: 857-88.


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