Terrorists' bombs kill more than just people.

Better ideas.
April 16 2002 3:56 PM

The Death of Innocents

Terrorists' bombs kill more than just people.

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In framing this horror, I am relying on American psychiatric notions of adolescence. The teen-age years are a time of emotional instability, the age of onset of the initial symptoms, and in some cases the full syndrome, of the major mental illnesses. Teens are prone to suicidal thoughts. Simultaneously, they entertain fantasies of invulnerability. They are joiners. They are idealists. It is in that limited sense that the adolescent suicide bomber qualifies as an innocent or naif—not in terms of his or her personal culpability but in terms of our external awareness of the unformed nature of youth. 

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I don't intend to step past this comment, from within a single literary viewpoint. I understand that writers, from E.M. Forster to Paul Bowles and onward, have warned of the inadequacy of that vision across cultures. I am aware—anyone can see—that the Palestinians have reason to be desperate. And I know that Western nations induct 18-year-olds into military service for some of the same reasons that Palestinian ideologues seek them out. Still, regarding the suicide attack by teen-agers, if it discourages us especially, if it convinces us that no solution is likely, it may be because it begins where our traditional moral imagination ends, even as regards political terror. From that perspective, adults who wrap a teen-ager in explosives take a conventional limit, the collateral death of an innocent, and say, we choose to start beyond, to begin our action and discourse from outside the pale.

Peter D. Kramer is the author, most recently, ofFreud: Inventor of the Modern Mind. His blog In Practice considers matters of brain and mind.