Sunday, November 12, 2006

Hagiography of Heroism: Part 5

Not inexplicably then, for all the years, that West (cast here in the role of Sauron) has eyed the Hamas as terrible opponents, the Palestinians have been receiving proof of the group’s ability to heal. The Hamas runs hospitals, schools and civic services form the bulk of the organization’s activities, even though Western media reports primarily on their “martyrdom” operations. Working from the position of the hero-in-disguise, the Hamas have been working at convincing and recruiting followers over the years of their existence. Relying on earlier archetypes means that they recruit not only soldiers and activists, but also cheerleaders and silent supporters, a strategy that served them well in the recent elections. The organisation has also constructed its military image, based once again on the warrior-hero characteristics displayed by Aragorn (and indeed other heroes of the same mold): stoicism, courage and determination in face of all odds have marked the Hamas’s move from the shadows to its current position as the “justly anointed king.”

Of course, the moment of revelation of the true self of the hero-in-disguise is critical in a story, generally placed at the moment of climax, when victory is nearly won and only credit need be gained. Unlike stories which can be constructed artificially to fit archetypes, human histories can merely attempt to achieve the same goals. While the desire to performatively claim the identity of the hidden-king is a powerful motivator, human actions do not necessarily have as well delineated or predictable consequences. This means that unlike Aragorn who announced himself as king at the final stages of the decisive battle, Hamas is faced with governing a realm in disarray and with little resources to restore peace or harmony. With Hamas moving from the shadows to the centre-stage of Palestinian politics, a question needs to be asked: has the king revealed himself too soon?

The third and final archetype is yet another familiar one: that of the heroic suicide. Despite much of the current discursive attempts emanating from Western academic that posits the heroic suicide as a non-Western phenomenon, there is ample evidence to the contrary. Not only do the military stories from the two world wars of the twentieth century show Western adherence to heroic suicide (the battle of Gallipolli being a prime example), but mass media also glorifies the ideal as a desirable one. Hollywood alone has produced heroic suicides (ending in death or success) in blockbusters as varied as the Fourth of July, Mission Impossible II and of course the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

Heroic suicide is a complex category, relying as it does on self-destruction as a performative assertion of an empowered self. The paradox also makes this archetype most powerfully resonant with populations who benefit from such a hero. The heroic suicide allows the perpetrator to deal a psychologically (and possibly militarily) crippling blow to the enemy – at times an oppressive state, or at times to a rival Other population or state. The key to this archetype is not the necessary destruction of the hero, but the desire for self-destruction that motivates him/her. In most narratives of the heroic suicides, the archetype is explores by twin strands – one that ends in death and destruction, and another – generally as the representative of a younger renewing generation – that ends in military success and life. Tolkein explores this archetype in the twin warrior-figures of Rohan – Theoden king who leads the ride of the Rohan to the killing-fields of Gondor against a far greater army and dies in battle, and his niece Eowyn who rides to battle seeking death but lives, having faced the leader of the Ringwraiths. The twin strands allow the narrative to retain an element of hope, although it is inevitably the narrative of suicide – cloaked as self-sacrifice – that resonates more strongly.

This self-sacrifice may be linked to the Girardian scapegoat mechanism, this time chosen freely based on prior constructions of its desireability. Unlike Girard’s scapegoat, the heroic scapegoat is not the repository of collective guilt but of the collective innocence. The heroic suicide is “sacrificed” by violence towards and from the “other”, often constructed as the outsider as a means of confronting a moment of social crisis. In death, the heroic suicide is exalted as an ideal to be strived for and desired by the population. This may be one major factor in why the heroic suicide is most ubiquitous as a desirable ideal in societies in crisis.

Theoden thus becomes the symbol of collective innocence of Rohan, despite his own moment of weakness as well as his decision to break the peace treaty with Saruman. His decision to lead the battle at Helm’s Deep is crucial in the war with Sauron, as it marks the change in alliances amongst the players. His final death in battle, against an enemy too strong to fight is a fitting tribute to his abilities as a king and warrior. Moreover, his death provides the injection of blood-lust for Rohan’s younger warriors who return to battle “grim and fey.”

The paper’s third example explores how this archetype of heroic suicide resonates powerfully among societies in crisis and at war as a desirable performative identity. The paper turns here to Loula Abboud, a Lebanese young woman who took up arms against Israel and finally died by exploding her own body in a battle against Israeli soldiers in her hometown of Aoun. The paper chooses Loula’s case in contrast to better known cases of “suicide bombers” for a variety of reasons. First, Loula was Christian not Muslim. She died in battle rather than in a “martyrdom” operation, and she died in her hometown battling an occupying force. Like Theoden king, Loula’s arrival in battle was the result of a long internal conflict and the end of a period of indecision that began with the exile of her family to Beirut. Moreover, the known facts of her death are those of linked to battle – she returned to occupied Aoun in 1985 at the head of an armed resistance party. She provided covering fire to her retreating comrades and then patiently waited for the enemy soldiers to approach her before setting off the explosives. Interestingly enough, Western commentators have expressed an inability to understand Loula’s actions or indeed her elevation to heroic status by the Lebanese, qualifying her as misinformed, and even more specifically “either insane or desperate.” (Davis, 2003, 71).

Yet Loula’s actions place her squarely as the archetypal heroic suicide. Like Theoden, she chose to go to battle of her own volition. Like Theoden, the enemy faced was superior in number and firepower. Finally, she chose her death, like Theoden, knowing it would inspire others of the community. This final factor is crucial to understanding the desirability of heroic suicide, as the act immediately elevates the actor to exalted status. Like Theoden who becomes the inspiration for the younger warriors of Rohan, who can look back at his “glorious death” with pride, Loula’s decision to die in battle also ensures her status as a martyr for the nation. The act of heroic suicide, in both cases, instantly binds the community in opposition to the enemy while also providing a collective repository of pride and glory – a commodity that is scarce in societies in crisis.

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