Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Ultimate Sacrifice?

I write fiction, which means I have to get inside a character's head an understands what motivates them to do what they do. Many of the characters I write aren't even possible, speaking of course of wizards and such, but there are real-life people for whom my attempts at characterization would fall impossibly short.

In this category, I put the martyrs and, separately, the suicide bombers. Now before I jump into this, I want to point out that neither martyrdom nor suicide are solely the bailiwick of Islam, radical Muslims, or those in general who read the Quran. I don't state this for political correctness, but for truth. Many people die for what they believe in, including the soldiers who are ordered to go to war to protect USAmerican freedoms.

Someone who dies or, more accurately, is killed specifically for their faith is what I deem as a martyr. This is a very loose definition, but it's the one I'm working with. I can understand a length of this, but I think I'd need to be willing to do it myself to fully understand it. Let me tell you, I'm not prepared to die for my faith. Of all the things in this world I would die for, beliefs in the abstract concepts explained to me by someone else don't qualify high on the list. Doesn't mean I don't believe in it, just that it's not a hill I would [literally] die on.

Martyrdom goes beyond simply dying for a cause. Many protestors have died for a cause. Many soldiers have died for various causes. It's never a simple thing, nor is it something to be discounted or disrespected. Dying for something takes courage, since we'd all much rather die in our beds after a long, happy life.

We fear death like we fear illness; it's only inevitable once it's actually happening. Humans don't actively think about death and, if they do, they try to put certain safeguards in place so that "things will be okay" when it comes. Hence, religion. It's probably because I keep this stepped-back view that I can say such things, but I earnestly believe that to most people Christianity is more about what happens after death than during life. It's frustrating, but it's one of the concepts we wrestle with.

Christianity has its share of martyrs, or should I say has had them. They're all long gone, mostly Catholic, and not entirely relevant to modern times. Jesus is, of course, the ultimate martyr, though by my definition he doesn't really qualify. If Jesus was, truly, either God or the son of God, then he technically didn't have any faith at all; he had knowledge.

Suicide Bombers
As I said before, martyrdom I can almost understand. Suicide bombings, however, are entirely out of scope for me, which is why I place them in an entirely separate category.

To me, exploding yourself in the vicinity of innocent people is sort of making the ultimate statement. The ultimate sacrifice, anyway, to some degree. The way I picture it is that there are no other channels available to this person to make their case. Perhaps this is because I see suicide as a last resort, one that I've never (and will never) have a need for, unless I am either already dying or unable to live.

9/11 has been heavily on people's minds as we approach the 9th anniversary of the events, and also because of the Ground Zero "Mosque" and (more recently) the Quran Burning. I remember in the days that followed, one of the things I often wondered was "what do these people want, that they are willing to go to such great lengths to be heard?" Unfortunately, I felt like I was the only one concerned about this. Various possibilities have been raised since then (e.g. they "hate our freedom," which I can't find a credible source for) but I think most people would agree that the situation, ultimately, hasn't changed a whole lot.

Whatever USAmerica was doing before 9/11 to piss off Al Qaeda and the Taliban, we seem to be still doing it, and probably with more fervor than before. And yet, suicide bombings still continue, and not just in the focus of this particular disagreement.

Therefore, the reason I don't understand suicide bombers is because the product of their ultimate sacrifice seems to be still out of reach. Neither do they get to see the fruits of their labor since, of course, they are dead. This being the case, I don't understand how someone could convince someone else to perform an act such as this. I guess I feel like my actions should have some kind of impact, particularly if I'm going to put that much effort into it. I feel like I understand the premise, but if the goal goes unattained I don't understand how the next person lines up for their very own dynamite vest and detonator.

How could I create a character who is so focused on a goal but who also knows that even the greatest sacrifice they could manage will not be enough to achieve it for themselves or anyone else? It would be much the same as convincing someone to throw their life away and, in that case, the "bombing" part becomes entirely unnecessary. If nothing is going to be accomplished anyway, why not just end life privately, where no one else can be hurt?

I don't expect an easy or simple answer to this. I'm not even sure there is an answer, but it is a quandary for the modern age. What is the point of dying if nothing is gained by it other than hurting people? What is the point of making the ultimate sacrifice if, at the end of the day, it changes absolutely nothing? Is it even an ultimate sacrifice at that point, or is it just throwing your life away?

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  1. I'm inclined to believe that from the perspective of the outsider, it could very well be that the martyr/suicide bomber is throwing their life away.

    But from the perspective of the suicide bomber? Perhaps they feel there's no other course to take in their life than that of bombing. Maybe they see it as bringing definition to an existence they feel has gone unfulfilled. What they don't stop to realize is that, as you've duly pointed out, is that things seldom change overnight. But if they have that chance, they just have to take it.

    Some characters certainly will give us more of a workout in trying to get right on the page. The good news is that we don't have to get every last detail of them down, just so long as the reader believes the character is real.

  2. Well, you have to believe that it is accomplishing something for it to make any sense on either of those points, I think.

    It's hard for me to imagine dying for my faith... but largely because it's hard for me to imagine being put into a situation where that would ever be necessary. Obviously, I hope that doesn't happen. I remember playing 'Romans and Christians' in camp as a kid though... and put in those situations, would it have been something I could have done? I still don't know for sure.

    Could I die in service of my country? I'd like to say I'd be willing to sacrifice myself for the general good of millions of strangers... but never having put myself in that position, I can't say for sure that I would, and it would almost feel disrespectful to those who actually have. So I won't say that I could do that... though again, if some odd circumstances called upon it... maybe.

    I think to relate... you have to find what you can or would die for, and extrapolate from there. Kind of like the opposite of the hypothetical 'Could you kill an innocent child to save 1 billion people?' And then paring that down until you see the line becomes really blurry and hard to see.

    Instead... I could imagine dying to save my family and/or loved ones. Now, to try and understand what causes someone to die for ______ you expand from there.

    Again... I'm dying in that situation with the specific goal/result in mind. I'm pretty sure that suicide bombers, etc. don't think they're accomplishing nothing at all. They assume they are part of the great change they seek. Or something.

    Kamikaze pilots are an easier example... similar to suicide bombers... but their goal was obvious and military.


  3. Egads, such privileged viewpoints. Imagine someone with a broader (or, if you think of it a different way, very narrow) view of life. Your life is simply part of a vast tapestry that extends in both time and place. You are simply a part of a whole. A cog in the wheel, so to speak. You are simply doing your job. You are fulling the purpose of YOUR life, which is, to blow yourself up for the cause. Your objective is to die while trying to take out as many as you can. The overall goal is just gravy and doesn't really matter. I hardly think they give it much more than a passing thought when they are first recruited.

    There's also the case that many of these folks don't have much to live for in the first place.

    My own two cents...

  4. Don't have much to live for in the first place?

    I guess I do have a lot to learn about better viewpoints.

  5. I didn't say 'better'. I said broader/narrow (depending on how you look at it). And I'm not saying that I think they all live horrible, suppressed lives and that they are just itching to kill themselves. If that was truly the case, they'd just end it all with a knife in some back alley.

    What I'm trying to say is that we try to imagine their situation from our own "privileged" point of view, and that's not going to get anyone any closer to understanding a suicide terrorist's warped mindset. I think they really think they are part of a huge movement that starts with their very personal relationship with their god.

    Again, just my two cents worth.

  6. Jeffrey,
    That's my point; it's difficult to understand the perspective of a suicide bomber. I can understand being part of a whole, part of a movement, but, at some point it has to show results, doesn't it? There has to be some value in the action?

    Kamikaze pilots is an angle I didn't think of, but it's a good point. They were dying for the war effort fully in the belief that they achieved honor for their actions. If suicide bombers believe that it's a war, it could be a similar scenario except for the fact that they are not targeting enemy combatants. If the Japanese had attacked civilian targets in Hawaii rather than the military base at Pearl Harbor, I wonder if the USA would have been even more upset.

    I'm not trying to have a privileged viewpoint... in fact, I'm admitting that I have a very narrow perspective on it and wondering how an author can gain that perspective.

    My hangup is, and perhaps this is a Wester-born view, it's difficult for me to put effort into something that merits no result or reward. I understand that, from my perspective, it's difficult to see what their result/reward system would be, but there still should be one, right?

    You make a really solid point, and I'm glad you mention that our view isn't necessarily "better." This is a touchy issue to begin with and I knew that going in, but I'm trying to approach it from a practical angle.

    I can get inside a character's head enough to make them want to kill themselves (as you've read), but that's entirely different from having them want to kill themselves to achieve something other than ending their horrible existence. That's the part I find tough to understand purely because I don't have enough real-life knowledge of what's involved in that scenario.


I'm always happy to hear from you, even if you disagree. Leave a comment or shoot me an email (initialdraft@gmail.com), whichever you prefer. Thanks for stopping by.


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