Dying and killing, killing and dying

Our columnist explores the language and the headlines of dying and killing, from Tibet to the United States to Iraq. 

Jim Gabour
19 May 2013

Headlines.  It is hard not to be obsessed with death these days. 

I have never laid claimed to being a philosopher.  Can barely tout even a minor knowledge of the way the rational jugglers make the spinning plates of theoretical reason turn round overhead on those long poles.  But I do know that no matter how big a somebody you are on this plane of existence, sooner or later you will be brought right back down here with the rest of us anonymous critters, to spend eternity under the all-consuming soil of time.  

It is not a pleasant prospect, dying.  So many of us simply choose to ignore its inevitability.  Hells bells, at this point I am not particularly concerned about it.  Don’t have the time.  As a personal, pragmatic solution, I find it is worthwhile and even fulfilling to move toward nothingness at a positively exuberant pace, diverted by what is probably a meaningless, but nonetheless contented, existence.  Foolish or not, I have consciously lived this way for six decades.   And I am happy.

Unfortunately for my chosen oblivion at times I have been a close witness to mortality. And in each instance I have recognized a large billboard advertising my own impending fate.  Again, no big deal.

This period of self-consciousness we call life is precious for most humans. And still, thousands of people remove themselves from it every day, well before their times, for a variety of reasons.  There is even a site devoted to this phenomenon called Suicidology Online.  Some of these self-inflicted deaths are personal, physical or emotional.   Sometimes life is just too much for the flesh to bear, or the flesh itself is giving way and needs an orderly end.  This basic acknowledgement of weight I can both understand and relate to.

Others die alone, but willingly, and for a reason that involves their role as part of a larger, and more important (to them), human entity.   Like right now in Tibet.

A quiet, contemplative place, isolated from the modern world by high mountains and bitter cold.  Rudimentary in many physical aspects, but the birthplace of many of the highest planes of human spiritual life.  For centuries its saffron-robed monks and nuns toiled with joy to simply find peace and leave the world a better place for their having existed in obscurity.   In my (even more) self-centered hippie days I firmly believed that for every false, loud, over-emotional relationship that I destroyed and perpetrated, there was somewhere in the Himalayas a quiet bald gentle person shaping sand mandalas on the floor of an ageless stone temple.  That person’s prayers evening out the karma of the planet countering my own abuses.

But actually, on October 7, 1950, the newly-formed People’s Republic of China had decided that both the autonomous Khampa region and the Dalai Lama’s religious government should be incorporated by force into the Communist realm of thought and nationalism. 

In the decades since, China has accomplished a slow but unflinching demolition of all that is Tibetan.  Mary Beth Markey, president of the International Campaign for Tibet in the United States said recently:  

“Policies that on the one hand withhold rights and on the other shake the foundation of Tibetan traditions and livelihoods, like the forced denunciation of the Dalai Lama or the settlement of hundreds of thousands of nomads into ‘socialist villages’, are a kind of Chinese juggernaut against a Tibetan population with no way to respond within the system.”

But the Tibetans found a way to respond:  A first monk immolated himself in protest in early 2009.  There was horror, and much talk, but little moved in the problem.  Then suddenly in March 2012 matters and method began to gel. The religious community decided that it had the burden of calling attention to their country’s plight, and that suicide by fire was the means.  Since then there is a self-immolation every other week.

Ms Markey now calls this an “immolation crisis… a desperate response to China’s stranglehold on religious, cultural and economic freedoms.”  After sixty years China has not changed its methodology, officially labeling Tibetans as terrorists and surrounding their monasteries and villages with armed forces.  They have rewritten laws, making suicide a capital crime. Read this last sentence as:  “If you kill yourself, we will execute you.” 

The New York Times reports that:

“Recently the authorities have detained 70 people accused of helping organize, encourage or publicize self-immolations. Chinese courts have so far shown little leniency toward the accused, sentencing more than a dozen ethnic Tibetans to long prison terms, and in one case in January, a suspended death sentence.   Those jailed include a 20-year-old artist who received two years in a labor camp after the police found images of self-immolators on his cellphone during a routine check, Radio Free Asia reported last week.”

Further The Daily Beast found that a Sichuan court has sentenced a Tibetan man to death and another to ten years in prison for “inciting” self-immolations: 

“… authorities have accelerated efforts to compel Buddhist clergy to denounce the Dalai Lama, and to introduce Chinese-language textbooks for scientific subjects in some Tibetan schools. This has left many Tibetans seething with anti-government resentment. (The government has also dangled carrots, including the promise of pension plans and medical care, to those who comply). As the number of fiery deaths has mounted, so has government rhetoric vilifying the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient. On Saturday, state-run media likened the Dalai Lama and his colleagues to ‘cruel Nazis during the Second World War’. Calling the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader a ‘tricky liar skilled in double-dealing’, the official Xinhua News Agency alleged that he favored policies to expel ethnic Han Chinese from traditionally Tibetan parts of the country: ‘How similar it is to the Holocaust committed by Hitler on the Jews!’”

Whoa. The Dalai Lama as Hitler.

The same smiling bespectacled chap who is speaking here in New Orleans this week at the Tulane University commencement, being honored for his life work with the musicians Doctor John and Allen Toussaint, at a University with a sizable Jewish population.  And the Chinese wonder why Tibetans think the truth may be getting slightly twisted somewhere in the scarlet-lined halls of Beijing, with governmental agencies steamrolling fabricated tabloid headlines into the world press. 

And thus the Tibetans kill themselves to try and stop it.

The Chinese paranoia runs deep.  The state-run China Daily ran an article accusing Voice of America radio of sending “coded messages” into Tibet. Another Xinhua article claimed that the VOA accusation was “well researched”.   Meanwhile The Huffington Post noted that nearby “Huangnan prefecture in western China’s Qinghai province is beefing up security and taking steps to shield the area from outside influence to deter self-immolations, the state-run, web-based Qinghai News reported. The local government will also use economic rewards and punishments to crack down on the practice”.

But Tibetans see all this, including China’s usurpation of the Dalai Lama process and the required approval of all lamas by the Communist party, as homicide.  China, they say, is trying to murder the Tibetan identity. And thus, descriptions of heart-wrenching suicides recur, like this in The National:

“... after drinking a bottle of petrol, his quiet preparations became a visceral act of political protest. ‘When he was on fire,’ one of his friends told me recently over tea, ‘he exploded’”.

* * *

Politically/spiritually-motivated suicide flourishes on an even grander scale in Iraq. But there the methodology requires a human body wrapped in explosives, causing the instant demise of the murderer, carrying with him/her as many others as possible. The figures carry the tale:

2003: 25 suicide bombings

2004: 140 suicide bombings

2005: 478 suicide bombings

2006: 297 suicide bombings

2007: 442 suicide Bombings

2008: 257 suicide Bombings

2009: 76 suicide Bombings

2010: 44 suicide Bombings

An analysis by Iraq Body Count and their co-authors published in 2011 concluded that “at least 12,284 civilians were killed in at least 1,003 suicide bombings in Iraq between 2003 and 2010. The study reveals that suicide bombings kill 60 times as many civilians as soldiers.”   But still, it is not a very efficient use of dynamite-strapped bodies, seeing as each bomber only gave his life for an average of twelve others.

Following the American pull-out from Iraq and the formal end of the Iraq War, bombings have continued in the country.  A quick sample from recent weeks show that the suicide murderers have now found a new reason for continuing.

6 APR 2013  At least 22 people killed during coordinated attack on open-air election campaign meeting north of Baghdad.

15 APR 2013:  At least 23 people have been killed and dozens more wounded on Monday morning in a wave of explosions across Iraq, Reuters reported.

18 APR 2013:  A suicide bomber blew himself up inside a Baghdad cafe popular with young people using the Internet, killing a least 27 and wounding dozens more in one of the worst single attacks in the Iraqi capital this year.

The perpetrators and their nurturers call themselves martyrs, assuming a religious mantle, tying their deaths to a national/ethnological cause superficially related to that being fought by the Tibetan monks.  But why take dozens, hundreds, thousands of other lives completely unrelated to ‘the battle’ to their deaths?

Mohammed M. Hafez, in Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom, answers:   

“The overwhelming majority of suicide attacks in Iraq have targeted Iraqi security forces and Shia civilians, not coalition forces. The perpetrators appear to be largely non-Iraqi volunteers. Many are from Saudi Arabia, but substantial numbers have come from Europe, Syria, Kuwait, Jordan and North Africa. They are foiling U.S. plans to stabilize the country and turn it into a democratic regime and an ally in a region of religious radicalism, entrenched authoritarianism, and hostile states with nuclear ambitions”.


Again killing oneself has in Iraq been adopted as a political tool.  These perpetrators not only die, they kill to make their ever-elusive point.  Which is?

* * *

There is a subset of even more delusional suicide murderers: those who wish to kill as many individuals as possible, people who may or may not have any connection whatsoever with the underlying motives of the killers, while the perpetrators wait until they have gloried in their act before killing themselves.

In yet another article in the New York Times, Adam Lankford, the author of the forthcoming book The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers, theorises that there are three probable factors that drive such people:

  1. Mental problems that have produced a desire to die.  Oddly though, Arab nations have among the lowest suicide rates in the world, and the Tibetan monks travel through life abiding by tenets that strictly prohibit the taking of any life.
  2. A sense of victimization, of one’s life being ruined by someone else.  I suppose that applies in most of these cases, even if it is delusional or merely self-excusing.
  3. Acquiring fame and glory through killing.  That blatantly does not apply to the Tibetans, blatantly does to the Iraqis, and now almost uniformly blankets the last decade of American suicide murders.

One of the first in the current strand was committed by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School.  These two young adults were living in a game where they clearly wanted to top their predecessors and be named America’s greatest bombers. Their personal journals document that they wished their actions to rival the Oklahoma City bombing. The attack has been referred to by USA Today as a "suicidal attack [which was] planned as a grand – if badly implemented – terrorist bombing."

In spite of what subsequently happened, Columbine was not intended as a shooting, but as a bombing on a massive scale.  As The Slate noted:   “If they hadn't been so bad at wiring the timers, the propane bombs they set in the cafeteria would have wiped out 600 people. After those bombs went off, they planned to gun down fleeing survivors.  An explosive third act would follow, when their cars, packed with still more bombs, would rip through still more crowds, presumably of survivors, rescue workers, and reporters. The climax would be captured on live television.  It wasn't just ‘fame’ they were after… they were gunning for devastating infamy on the historical scale of an Attila the Hun. Their vision was to create a nightmare so devastating and apocalyptic that the entire world would shudder at their power.”

But people like Harris and Klebold seem also motivated by the desire to kill and be killed, as was the Newtown murderer.  Professor Lankford describes both sets as “rampage shooters”:  “Although we can only speculate, Adam Lanza’s decision to target elementary school children in Newtown, Conn. may have been a calculated attempt to get as much attention as possible.  Despite misconceptions to the contrary, many mentally ill people are quite capable of staging their attacks for symbolic effect.

“In 2002, the Washington-area snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo shot a middle schooler, then taunted the police with a note that said ‘Your children are not safe anywhere at any time.’ Mr. Lanza may have realized that the only thing that generates more attention than killing random innocent adults is killing random innocent children.”  

African American Muhammad and Malvo of course go contrary to yet another speculative theory by The Philadelphia Inquirer that most of these killings are “a white-male, not mental-health, issue”. The ever-confrontational and vitriolic columnist Ann Coulter says just the opposite, while of course glorifying her own viewpoint:

“The victims of gun violence are the left’s latest ‘human shields’ — a term coined by me in Godless: The Church of Liberalism — for their idiotic ideas. At least it’s not the godawful Jersey Girls this time. The one clear thread that unites all the mass murders currently being exploited by the Democrats is that they were committed by visibly crazy people who were unaccountably not institutionalized.  But Democrats refuse to do anything about crazy people. Apparently, the views of families with relatives murdered by severely disturbed individuals are no longer relevant when it comes to institutionalizing the mentally ill. This allows liberals to act as if Republicans’ only counter-argument to their idiotic gun control proposals is: We don’t mind dead children. The truth is the opposite. Republicans are pushing policies that will reduce gun violence; Democrats are pushing policies that will increase gun violence.”

The Washington Times directly refutes Coulter’s assumption in an article entitled “The fraudulent diagnosis for mass murderers: ‘Mental illness’ is a metaphor, not a predictor”.  The author, Professor Richard E. Vatz of Towson University, emphasises that “This is a way to pretend that evil does not motivate such atrocities and a way for politicians to act as if they have discovered a way to stop them.”

Unsurprisingly there have been rampant though unverified reports that Ms Coulter will shortly be offered the position of Executive Editor for the Xinhua News Agency.

* * *

And then there are the pitiful emulators, those who want the glory, and possibly want the death, but haven’t the courage for suicide.

Uncharitably, the front page photos offer a true geek parade of vacuously-motivated individuals, looking for their lives in other people’s deaths.  Jared Lee Loughner in Arizona, James Holmes in Colorado, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Boston, all possibly wanted to die when they started contemplating the act, but all of them fled their own mortality when faced with the consequences of their actions.

These are the most pitiful creatures, seemingly rational in their logistical and planning expertise, and yet completely lacking the one thing their predecessors thought might validate their exercise:  their own suicide.

* * *

There is not much more to be said, at least by me.  In 2013 it seems that we die and kill, kill and die, taking our own and others’ lives has become a language, a means of expression.  Beyond the bombastic whinings of Xinhua and the NRA and individual exploitative mentalities like Coulter’s, there are literal innocents who lose their personal short period of Life, of happiness, simply because someone else has something to say.

There is a fundamental flaw in this language.  

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData