Exploring humanity’s dark side

How does a nice Jewish girl from west-end Montreal manage to get mixed up in some of the world’s most violent conflicts – from the Chechen revolt against Russian rule to the seemingly interminable Israeli-Palestinian struggle?

The short answer has something to do with the Holocaust. The long answer could — and likely will — consume the rest of this article, and it won’t be exhausted even then.

“That’s a good question,” says Mia Bloom, 42, who’s on the phone from Belfast, epicentre of yet another bloody dispute, the war between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, now fortunately in abeyance.

She is conducting research there on behalf of Penn State University’s International Center for the Study of Terrorism, where she is a fellow.

She is also the author of a forthcoming book about the distaff side of political bloodshed.

It’s called Bombshell: The Many Faces of Women Terrorists, and it’s due out in Canada next month, a companion volume to her previous opus, Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror.

Neither book constitutes light bedtime fare, for Bloom seems driven to train her ample curiosity upon the most lethal and destructive impulses of men – and women.

“I’ve focused on the dark side in part to understand how to fight it,” she says. “There are cycles of violence. We need to find a way to stop the cycle.”

Rightly or wrongly, terrorism tends to be identified in the public mind as the work of insurgent groups, rather than the strategy of states, but Bloom stands squarely against it either way. She also appears to sympathize with the causes, if not always the tactics, of oppressed minorities, whether they be Chechens locked in struggle with Moscow, Tamils battling the Sinhalese-controlled state, or Palestinians fighting Israeli expansion on their lands.

“Growing up, I was always very much fighting for the underdog,” she says. “I’m the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. The Holocaust loomed large. I don’t see how any group that has been persecuted can turn around and persecute any other group.”

But they do.

In fact, there seem to be few horrors that men – or sometimes women – will not inflict upon one another, given the motive, the means and the opportunity.

“When there’s intentional violence against the other side’s civilians, it’s never justified,” Bloom says. “But you can understand some of the structural mechanisms that lead people to behave as they do.”

When it comes to women who serve as suicide bombers or guerrilla fighters, there seems to be no single, unvarying pattern that explains every case.

In some instances — Chechen resistance, for example — coercion of one sort or another seems to be a central factor when women allow bomb vests to be strapped around their midriffs or agree to carry out other acts of political violence.

Chechen women who join their people’s struggle often do so because they have been previously raped by Russian soldiers and have subsequently been persuaded that violence is the only way to “redeem” themselves. In other cases, they have been raped by Chechen men, but their anger or despair is turned against Moscow all the same.

By way of contrast, many female activists in the Provisional Irish Republican Army, those who carried out violent missions against British forces in Northern Ireland, don’t seem to have been coerced at all.

“I would definitely be able to say these women were not forced,” says Bloom. “These women in many ways were leading the charge.”

The difference, she says, is not a matter of Islam vs. non-Islam, but of religion vs. non-religion.

In conflicts that are deeply religious in nature — unlike Northern Ireland, where tensions are sectarian but not essentially spiritual — women tend to have less control over their fates.

In either case, women have important advantages over men, at least when it comes to inflicting death and mayhem.

“Women bombers … tend to be more successful than men,” writes Bloom in her new book. “They have higher kill rates and can penetrate the target more deeply than many men, who might get stopped at the entrance of a bus or restaurant.”

That advantage is redoubled in parts of Asia or the Middle East, where many women wear voluminous robes as a matter of custom. What better way to hide a bomb?

What’s more, writes Bloom, female terrorists provide great P.R. for insurgencies or resistance movements.

“On average, an attack perpetrated by a woman gets eight times as much press attention as a similar attack by a man.”

Should the female attacker be comely in life — if inevitably less so in death — the impact will be further magnified.

“Looking at a police lineup of female Palestinian suicide bombers … you would be struck by how attractive many of them are,” Bloom writes. “The groups are seeking that reaction, followed by the obvious question, What could make such a pretty girl do that? There must be something seriously wrong.”

Bloom’s latest book, packed with insights and revelations, also contains riveting tales, including a heart-rending account of the Chechen takeover of Moscow’s House of Culture in October, 2002, a deeply affecting chronicle of Chechen desperation, Russian bungling, and a woeful toll of doomed and innocent lives.

Her 12-page introduction to the Palestinian-Israeli struggle is a miniature masterpiece of sharp-eyed exposition, all the more remarkable considering the nearly endless complexities and contradictions of that dispute.

In the end, writes Bloom, there seem to be five main factors that induce women to take up arms or to transform themselves into human bombs. In her presentation, each of these factors begins with the letter R, and they include revenge, redemption and rape.

Whether carried out by men or women, Bloom insists terrorism — the deliberate targeting of civilians in order to achieve a political objective — is never justified morally. It isn’t even very effective.

“It actually doesn’t work,” says Bloom, who’s now preparing a third book, a study of rape and war. “At the end of the day, violence will only beget more violence.”

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