This year, World Suicide Prevention Day (September 10) came just one day before September 11, the anniversary of that infamous attack on New York in 2001—suicide or martyrdom, depending on your viewpoint.
Suicide is always a personal and social—even sociopathic—tragedy. Few can think of it as philosophically as Nietzsche who argued that thinking about suicide “is a great consolation” and, a means of getting one “successfully though many a bad night.” Most prefer the view of critic-novelist Wilfred Sheed, who concluded that it is “the sincerest form of criticism life gets.”
In this respect, in cases of personal suicide (deliberate self-killing), the individual is almost certainly depressed or suffering a related mental illness, something that can affect anyone. I’ll never forget how during the 1970s, a fellow gospel street preacher with whom I socialised and worshipped one week, was reported dead by suicide the next.
Experts acknowledge that statistics for completed suicide are merely the tip of an iceberg. But in Australia, suicide accounts for less than 2 per cent of all deaths. The latest statistics (ABS, 2003) show suicide rates falling, and for the 15-19-year-old age group, the suicide rate, at 113 deaths, was the lowest in a decade.
Globally considered in the light of recent terrorist events, including the October bombings in Bali, it is also clear that the terrible loss we face through personal suicide is now abutted by the social losses of the phenomenon we glibly refer to as “suicide bombers.” Not content to take just their own lives, such bombers want to take the lives of others with them. A single tragedy is multiplied into misguided evil.
My first knowledge of this was during the 1950s in colonial Fiji, where World War II action comics (“TV” in then-remote parts of the Pacific) featured imagined accounts of Japanese kamikaze pilots, aiming their planes at American warships.
Since 9/11, the incidence of suicide bombers has escalated sharply. According to a Washington Post report, three-quarters of all suicide bombings in history have occurred since then. During his time as Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein is reported to have offered cash rewards/ compensation of up to $US25,000 to families of Palestinian suicide bombers. Suicide bombing, which originally featured in Hezbollah’s war against American marines in Beirut in 1983, has spread to Morocco, India and Russia (where they have become part of the Chechen Muslim struggle). And it has now affected Bali, Indonesia.
But few places have seen a sharper rise than Iraq’s suicide bombings. Some 400 suicide bombings have occurred there since the 2003 American-led invasion against Saddam’s regime. In the month of May this year, deaths through suicide bombings in Iraq equalled the grand total of all Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel since 1993.
Surprisingly, perhaps, as the Washington Post reports, the most common suicide bombings have occurred not in the Middle East but in Southern Asia’s civil war between Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan Government forces. Since 1983, more than 65,000 have been killed in their sporadic skirmishes, with many by suicide bombings, including that of former Sri Lankan President Premadasa, in 1993.
While World Suicide Prevention Day focuses on personal suicide (and the tragic consequences of the phenomenon), the day may gain greater recognition if it took account of the religio-politico-psychiatric condition that leads to suicide bombings. This scourge is generously idealised as “martyrdom” in some quarters, but it is more accurately called “murder,” because it provokes anger and a sense of moral sacrilege rather than grief and pity for the suiciding person.
Both forms of suicide need to be prevented, but when the human becomes a weapon in one rather than a self-negating point as in the other, a transgressive line is crossed between compassion and justifiable outrage. In this sense, even the archetypal suicidee, Judas, comes off looking better than do his offspring, the contemporary suicide bombers.