An Inspired Story

Let me tell you a story and you tell me what comes to mind:

A small armed rebel militia launches near-daily attacks against a State it considers to be a foreign invader. The State needs the natural resources from the land and uses technologically advanced predator drones to monitor the insurgents and protect its supply lines. They also use local actors to manage and maintain the drones. After more than a half century of occupation the only possibility for success for the insurgent militia to take back ‘their’ land is by suicide bombers. And so the insurgents sends a team of two to blow up the State’s infrastructure using IEDs. The widow and young daughter of the suicide bomber end up connecting with the now-victorious insurgents.

Did it remind you of Iraq? Afghanistan? Pakistan? Yemen? Somalia? Palestine? Perhaps an Al-Qaeda recruiting video?

Actually, this is the storyline of ‘Oblivion‘, the new Tom Cruise sci-fi flick. The protagonist who saves the day through an IED- based suicide mission is an American, former NASA employee. The movie has received mixed reviews with high marks for visual bling and plenty of criticism for not having an internally consistent storyline.

Perhaps visiting extremist web-sites is not the only way to “Inspire” deadly violence. Perhaps planting seeds in impressionable minds through visually striking, seemingly banal & derivative sci-fi movies can also play a role in changing value systems. Perhaps we need to ask what else we are oblivious to in our lives.


  1. morealtitudeApril 25, 2013

    Interesting analogy. Saw the movie last week & derivatives aside, the visuals & soundtrack were epic enough to make it a good ride for me.

    The thing is, the idea of self-sacrifice for the greater good is a deeply-embedded narrative, particularly in the Judeo-Christian tradition. A heroic last-stand on a battlefield to win your side some time or a chance at victory is something revered in all kinds of mythology. It’s actually a very short step from that to the appeal of the suicide-bomber, which is why it resonates so deeply with a portion of the world’s population that see themselves as oppressed (judgement withheld).

    A soldier who hangs back to attack a pursuing enemy at the cost of his own life so his comrades can escape would be hailed a hero (see latest rendition of the movie ‘Red Dawn’ where such mythology is glorified). Currently reading Marcus Luttrell’s “Lone Survivor”. A SEAL captured by Afghan villagers (he feared possibly Taliban), he pulled a pin on a grenade and held it closed against his chest, so that if he was cornered or if they shot him, the subsequent detonation would also take out his attackers.

    The Oblivion narrative justifies itself because [spoiler alert] it involves the destruction first of a sentient robotic/AI being (as opposed to organic life- i.e. dehumanization) and second because there is no reference (positive or negative confirmation) of any civilian/non-complicit casualties in the destruction.

    My point is, criticism of the suicide-bomber is invariably myopic. I’m not justifying for one moment the sort of wretched human who starts handing out candy to attract a crowd of kids and then detonates his bicycle. When you’re targeting civilians deliberately to create a political/social effect, that’s a whole different ballgame. But as a military tactic (as, essentially, was portrayed in Oblivion), I would be much more hesitant trying to suggest that it is ethically ‘wrong’ or that promoting this mythology is in some way dangerous- even our Western mythologies are steeped in the idea of self-sacrifice- right up to modern ‘heroes’ like Luttrell. If a Taliban fighter were to hurl themselves at a NATO convoy in Afghanistan and blow themselves up, it sucks for the people in the convoy, but that fighter has essentially used a well-established military tactic- from an ethical perspective, no more and no less.

    The line that gets crossed is the collateral damage that is caused when detonations take place in civilian areas- or worse, when civilians are specifically targeted. Sadly, collateral damage is not purely in the domain of jihadis (although, morally-speaking, I sincerely hope that the deliberate targeting of civilians remains-so, as coalition governance has checks and balances in place to limit this). So the question is, is representing the notion of self-sacrifice for the greater good the dangerous myth, or rather is it important that the propagation of such myths ensures clear deliniation of what is acceptable and unacceptable in this domain?


    1. khanseraiApril 26, 2013

      I’m going to play the devil’s advocate for a bit (I really am not vehemently against the movie, it was great eye candy!)

      Just a few points to some of your assumptions as I understood them:
      [MA] the Scavs (“insurgents”) were justified in their quest.
      [HK] Just because they were humans? They had funky helmets? They lived on earth? Their quest was freedom? They had been attacked ~3 generations (60+yrs) ago? How long do we get to claim a piece of land that we are not in control of?

      [MA] Suicide attacks are a legitimate military tactic.
      [HK] It’s not just about the tactic but the actors. What defines a legitimate military? Are all insurgents legitimate militias? Taliban are opposition however they are not legit military, they attack the Afghan forces too. Is every local armed opposition group legit? What happens if they are not local but have immigrated to the country? Does a larger number somehow give their quest greater credibility? I will look up the Luttrell book

      [MA] The attacks were against sentient robots (non-human) & there were no human casualties
      [HK] The Scavs launched the last attack WITHOUT knowledge of who was on the other side. It was only after they were already inside the Tent that they found out that (maybe) the adversary was sentient robotic. For all they knew, the rest of the humans were inside that object.

      I’ll stop picking on the movie now 🙂

      The concept of self- sacrifice for the greater good, enduring pain/affliction for the sake of others is in every tradition. The myth is really not the issue but what constraints we put on the objectives, perception of existential threats, target selection, adversary identification & acceptable tactics. And of course who is the “we” that gets to decide them. And then comes the art of propagating the myth without blurring the message to the point of obscurity.


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