The Making Of Martyrs

A New Documentary Probes the Minds Of Suicide Bombers

By Lisa Keys

Published June 25, 2004, issue of June 25, 2004.
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One day last spring was much like any other for Mohanned Abu Tayyun. He awoke early at his Nablus home, got dressed, washed his face and had his usual breakfast. Similarly, throughout Israel, most local families were occupied with workaday morning rituals: drinking coffee, reading the paper, doling goodbye pecks to loved ones.

And yet this day was special for 18-year-old Tayyun, as he recalled feeling an emotion he rarely experienced in his young life: happiness. “I knew I would soon become a martyr,” he said of the day he was to carry out a suicide bomb attack. “That made me happy.”

Tayyun does not seem a likely candidate for such a hate-filled crime. Handsome and wide-eyed, with a downy growth on his upper lip that closely resembles a moustache, he looks like a shy kid who’d wear a backpack stuffed with comics, not deadly explosives.

And so he represents a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a suicide bomber, one of five interviewed in a timely documentary by British filmmaker Tom Roberts and his partner, Israeli producer Israel Goldvicht. Originally aired on Britain’s Channel Four, “Suicide Bombers” has its U.S. debut July 1 as part of the PBS international documentary series, “Wide Angle.”

In interviews with five young men connected to suicide bombings, Roberts and Goldvicht create a fascinating portrait of the desperation fear and anger that compel these young men to commit such a horrific act — not that they all necessarily exhibit the same traits, nor in similar quantities. Some are timid, others almost gregarious. In short, we learn that there’s no such thing as your “typical” bomber.

“This was my attempt to take Western viewers into the minds of these individuals, why they came to do what they did,” said Roberts. “Let’s find out who these people are and what motivates them. It’s very important to find out who your enemies are, what they’re thinking and saying.”

And while Roberts admits to being decidedly pro-Israel, the filmmakers barely let politics interfere; instead, they let their subjects speak, without flourish. Although Roberts does offer occasional voice-over comment (“it’s a powerful combination of religious faith and political expediency”) — and, at times, the dramatic music feels overwrought — the brilliance of “Suicide Bombers” lies in its simplicity.

“I felt it was important that I don’t launch into a political discussion about the roots of suicide bombing,” said Roberts. “I thought it was too important to hear them speak.”

Through the interviews, we learn, for example, how desperation nearly led Tayyun to death and murder. “I want to become a martyr — I don’t want this life,” he said. “Here, my life is full of problems.”

Two of the interviewees had a change of heart before they carried out their mission, while Israeli police thwarted another. Regardless of reason, these men share a belief that it was the will of God that they live — that they not, as they say, become martyrs — a belief that absolves them of guilt and responsibility.

But the bombers themselves only provide part of the story. The film’s most harrowing interviews are with the angry young architects behind the attacks. These are not lonely teens, desperate for recognition — either in this life or the next — who are recruited to kill and be killed. Rather, they are cold strategists for whom suicide attacks are a matter of simple math. “If they kill a child in Gaza, I’ll kill one in Tel Aviv….” says Majdi Mohammad Amer, 25, an engineer who built a bomb that killed 17 in Haifa in March 2003. “I don’t have a choice but to create a balance of terror.”

Chilling logic aside, these masterminds, too, slip into the language of religious fanaticism. College-educated Muath Abu Sharkh, the 24-year-old who recruited the Haifa bomber, describes to Roberts the trajectory of a martyr’s soul, his journey from death to heaven. There, in addition to marrying 72 virgins, allegedly are three rivers made of milk, holy water and “nonalcoholic wine” (so perhaps this “heaven” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be).

Most fascinating to the filmmakers was that alongside political motivations were personal ones. “Generally we have this view that there’s an overwhelming ideology, that these are unthinking people,” Roberts said. “But in every case, there were elements of ideology, shared experience, religious belief and, finally, some personal element. A trigger of some sort.”

Take Amer. When he was 12, a border policeman slapped him. A dozen years later, as he organized the Haifa bus bombing, he still had it in his thoughts. “I’m a Muslim, not a Christian,” he said. “In Christianity, if you slap someone on the right cheek, he turns the left cheek towards you. My principle is different: If you slap me once, I’ll slap you twice.”

Thankfully, Roberts poses the obvious question to Sharkh: If he’s carrying out God’s will, as he believes he is, why not conduct the operation himself?

“If there is no seed, there cannot be a tree,” Sharkh replied. “The seeds must survive so that there will be trees. We are the seeds and we must grow the trees.”

Let’s hope that the apples fall far, far away.

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