Lights, camera, explosion

take_oneGiven its horrors, we tend not to understand or even seek to understand what motivates terrorists.

That is why this piece in the Los Angeles Times is so stunning. Far from dehumanizing a would-be terrorist, reporter Borzou Daragahi manages to hook hometown readers by finding some common ground between local industry and a Lebanese Muslim high school student. Here’s the provocative lede:

Hiba Qassir dreams of making movies. She’s ambitious and precocious enough. At 18, she’s taught herself how to edit video and sound on a computer, and has her sights set on directing gripping social and psychological dramas.

But if the movie business doesn’t work out, that’s OK. She has other dreams: perhaps to become a cop or a pilot. Or maybe a suicide bomber.

The story is written in a very straightforward manner. It doesn’t excuse or condemn the religious views of its subject. I must admit it is somewhat funny, or sad really, to compare the Times poorly reported and horribly written condemnation of “fundamentalist” Gov. Sarah Palin’s, uh, “fundamentalism” with this nuanced piece about suicide bombers.

Anyway, the reporter incorporates the subject’s religious views while painting a nice picture of her life as a teenager in Lebanon. Hiba is an English-speaking tour guide at a Hezbollah exhibit devoted to honoring Muslim martyrs:

She points to a hall lined with posters adorned with artificial flowers. “The first one was in 1982 here in Tyre,” she says. “You can see that [late Israeli leader] Yitzhak Rabin said that this operation took the lives of many people, especially those with special qualities and skills.”

That suicide bomber was 18, just like her, when he drove an explosives-filled Peugeot sedan into the Israeli command post here on Nov. 11, 1982, and killed 75 Israeli soldiers, border guards and intelligence officers, according to Lebanese accounts. Israel has long maintained that the blast was an accident, caused by a gas leak.

His name was Ahmad Qassir, and Hiba is particularly proud of her uncle, martyr No. 1 in the official history of Hezbollah’s long war against Israel.

“Israel usually says that these people are hopeless people and lovers of death,” Hiba says. “But we always say that martyrdom is our way to heaven.”

As she leads people through the tour, she excitedly discusses how many Jews were killed by each operation. Hiba talks about how Muslim history would be nothing without such martyrs. She wants to go to college and travel the world and be a director. She also desires martyrdom:

“We have many martyrs in the family, and we like this thing,” she says. “As ordinary people, we have to work and say prayers, and despite all of that we might not go to heaven. But the martyrs go directly to heaven.”

Hiba insists that she’s not just repeating political slogans. She says if given the chance, she would sacrifice herself and her dreams to become a martyr.

“Let’s speak logically,” she says. “The path of each person is not decided by us, and our years are limited by God’s wants, so if it was offered to me to die as a martyr, it’s better than to live life with all its sins.”

The story has a very limited scope. It’s about what suicide missions mean to a young high school woman. Still, it would have been nice to have a bit of context about the history of martyrdom, the history of suicide missions as an expression of that martyrdom and, perhaps, some feedback from Muslims who disagree that suicide bombers are martyrs. Still, it’s an fascinating story. I don’t know how the reporter found Hiba but what an interesting subject for a story.

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  • Dave

    If this were a story about a young American whose ambitions included being Special Forces commando ready to give her life for her country, just like her late uncle on a certain-death mission in Gulf War I, there would be nothing exceptional. The major difference would be that the Special Forces mission would not have been targeting civilians. This is good journalism and, more importantly, a rare look into the motives of the enemy.

    I must admit it is somewhat funny, or sad really, to compare the Times poorly reported and horribly written condemnation of “fundamentalist” Gov. Sarah Palin’s, uh, “fundamentalism” with this nuanced piece about suicide bombers.

    This was unnecessary and detracts from the quality of the post. We should be focused on the instant item, and not drag up old grudges.

  • Jerry

    Dave raises a very important point. We have a different attitude toward Americans in similar situations. On one hand, we believed for many years and perhaps still believe that killing over 200,000 civilians in Japan was necessary and justified because we were fighting for universal values and against tyranny. We also honor self-sacrificing individuals who give their lives that other might live and soldiers who are asked to undertake what could easily be “suicide missions”. And many of us honored Buddhists who committed suicide for their beliefs in Vietnam during that war.

    So I have to say that her attitude is not so different than ours. I don’t agree with her understanding of her religious obligations, but they are very human attitudes.

    Therefore, this kind of story is very helpful in understanding the motivations of those who are willing to die for their beliefs.

  • Carl

    I don’t think the story should use the term “martyr” to refer to suicide bombers, except where quoting someone who does. People who kill themselves while while attempting to kill others are not martyrs. Or at the very least, they are not accepted by everyone else as being martyrs, which is a term of praise.

  • Jay

    I agree with Mollie here: The Times wants to make sure it provides a fair shake to a religious zealot who’s willing to become a suicide bomber to kill Israeli civilians. However, the same paper is unable to produce a balanced story on an elected official and major party nominee — whose religious views would be consonant with 30-50 million Americans.

    It seems easy for the LAT (which seems to have the same groupthink but looser editing than its NY counterpart) to be fair to America’s enemies but not its supporters.

  • Perpetua

    Very interesting piece. I would have liked to read how Hiba would respond to questions about a possible difference between Ahmad Qassir’s attack on Israeli military personnel and later suicide bombers’ attacks on civilian populations. Would Hiba see a distinction?

  • tmatt

    Wait, wait, wait…. Does anyone JOIN special forces planning to blow themselves up?

    Also, MZ’s point in bring up Palin was to raise the issue of respect and empathy. Does Hiba deserve respect and an accurate reporting of her beliefs and motives? OF COURSE.

    Ditto for Palin. That was MZ’s point.

  • Sabrina

    Sorry, tmatt (and Mollie), I agree with Dave. The rest of the post seems considered and raises interesting questions that, indeed, I wish had been covered in the LA Times. But this graf….

    I must admit it is somewhat funny, or sad really, to compare the Times poorly reported and horribly written condemnation of “fundamentalist” Gov. Sarah Palin’s, uh, “fundamentalism” with this nuanced piece about suicide bombers.

    It draws a false analogy between dissimilar types of stories — one is a feature (albeit with a newsy hook) about an unknown; the other is a news story about a public figure. The form (and usually word count) of the first will always allow for more time and ease to explore the religious dimensions of the story (if they’re there) than the second.

    Also, the tone of the graf sets my teeth on edge. Let me recast in a child’s voice for you: “But, Mom, that MSM is so-o-o unfair … I mean, they were much nicer to the Muslim than to the Christian….” Not exactly what I come to GR to read.

    But most egregiously, there is the last line of the graf. The story is not a “nuanced piece about suicide bombers,” it is a nuanced piece about Hiba, who may know and admire suicide bombers but isn’t one.

    If this were a MSM story, you all would have been the first to point out that the word choice is inflammatory and the attitude evident — despite the attempt to keep it sub rosa.

    If we’re going to hold the MSM (rightfully) accountable for their words, then shouldn’t we be accountable for ours?

  • Jerry

    Wait, wait, wait…. Does anyone JOIN special forces planning to blow themselves up?

    The theological difference between suicide bombers, Kamakazis, Buddhists suiciding to protest in Vietnam, those who in the past killed abortion clinic doctors and those who go into battle knowing the odds are bad is not all that wide. I do not agree with it, but some could say that Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. could be used to justify all those actions. And add the theological belief that such actions are a direct route to heaven and we have the current situation.

    What I’d like to know is who, if anyone, is using the fatwas that have been issued against suicide bombing to counter the belief that suicide bombing is a direct route to heaven.

  • Mollie


    The two articles had the same word count and were both features. The Palin story was about her religious views and was a wreck — you can follow my link above to see for yourself. This story, on the other hand, was great. They both appeared on the same page of the same paper, too. I think the comparison is even more apt than I realized when I wrote it.

    Also, it’s about a woman who hopes for martyrdom through a suicide bombing mission, leads tours devoted to honoring suicide bombers, and honors those in her family who are suicide bombers. I think it’s nitpicky to say the story isn’t about suicide bombing.

    And if I gave off the impression that I think the media coverage of one particular Christian was unfair, I stand convicted. That LA Times story on Palin was horribly unfair. I don’t know how much of the larger media assault on Palin had to do with her Christianity but that was the particular vehicle chosen by that one reporter, to his shame.

  • Sabrina

    Okay, Mollie.