Over at Commentary’s blog, Contentions, Max Boot has a wistful post bemoaning the manner in which several of Syria’s top defense-ministry officials were killed today. While they deserved their fate, he writes, “it is hard to take much satisfaction in the manner of their demise. For suicide bombing is never the weapon of the moderate.” It’s not clear that this was a suicide bombing first of all (most initial reports have a remotely detonated bomb) but let’s assume it was, so we can follow Max’s point a bit further:
As a terrorist tactic it was occasionally utilized by the Socialist Revolutionary Combat Organization in early 20th-century Russia but really came into its own with Hezbollah in Lebanon in the 1980s, before being picked up by al-Qaeda and its offshoots. While the willingness of ordinary soldiers to sacrifice their lives to win a battle is universally respected (think of the Spartans at Thermopylae) that is a very different thing from deliberately setting out to kill one’s self and take as many of the enemy with you as possible. Americans were appalled at the kamikaze tactics employed by the Japanese at the end of Word War II and rightly so: fighting in this way bespeaks a fanaticism that does not bode well for the future unless it is rooted out.
I normally agree with Max, but I wasn’t sure he had made such a compelling case this time. First of all, it is the targeting of civilians, not the suicide, that makes the typical suicide bombing an act of horrific barbarity. Here the casualties appear to have been all military. Still, Max’s point about “suicide bombing is never the weapon of the moderate” left me wondering, so I posted his commentary on Facebook to see what others might think.
Almost immediately, a German friend of mine replied, “I wonder what von Stauffenberg would think of [Max's] article.” I hate WWII analogies, but this time the analogy is almost exact. The “Valkyrie” plot to kill Hitler and top Nazi generals with a briefcase bomb was carried out by trusted high-ranking officers; in Syria, the bombing was reportedly carried out by one of the defense minister’s bodyguards. Colonel von Stauffenberg was not planning on suicide, but he was certainly willing to risk death in order to decapitate the regime — and, sure enough, he was executed when the plot failed. In that sense, Valkyrie was a suicide mission, and as close to a suicide bombing as to make little practical difference. Is that evidence that von Stauffenberg was not a moderate? And is there really such a big difference between this and the Spartan’s suicidal stand at Thermopylae, which was specifically meant to take as many of the enemy out as possible in a historic act of self-sacrifice?
I’m willing to be convinced, but I think a much stronger argument would need to be made. In the meantime, I’ll go out on a limb and say that the decapitation of the Syrian defense ministry with minimal loss of civilian life is cause for celebration.