Zahra Maladan is an educated woman who edits a women’s magazine in Lebanon. She is also a mother, who undoubtedly loves her son. She has ambitions for him, but they are different from those of most mothers in the West. She wants her son to become a suicide bomber.
At the recent funeral for the assassinated Hezbollah terrorist Imad Moughnaya — the mass murderer responsible for killing 241 marines in 1983 and more than 100 women, children and men in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994 — Ms. Maladan was quoted in the New York Times giving the following warning to her son: “if you’re not going to follow the steps of the Islamic resistance martyrs, then I don’t want you.”
Zahra Maladan represents a dramatic shift in the way we must fight to protect our citizens against enemies who are sworn to kill them by killing themselves. The traditional paradigm was that mothers who love their children want them to live in peace, marry and produce grandchildren. Women in general, and mothers in particular, were seen as a counterweight to male belligerence. The picture of the mother weeping as her son is led off to battle — even a just battle — has been a constant and powerful image.
Now there is a new image of mothers urging their children to die, and then celebrating the martyrdom of their suicidal sons and daughters by distributing sweets and singing wedding songs. More and more young women — some married with infant children — are strapping bombs to their (sometimes pregnant) bellies, because they have been taught to love death rather than life. Look at what is being preached by some influential Islamic leaders:
“We are going to win, because they love life and we love death,” said Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. He has also said: “[E]ach of us lives his days and nights hoping more than anything to be killed for the sake of Allah.” Shortly after 9/11, Osama bin Laden told a reporter: “We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the big difference between us.”
“The Americans love Pepsi-Cola, we love death,” explained Afghani al Qaeda operative Maulana Inyadullah. Sheik Feiz Mohammed, leader of the Global Islamic Youth Center in Sydney, Australia, preached: “We want to have children and offer them as soldiers defending Islam. Teach them this: There is nothing more beloved to me than wanting to die as a mujahid.” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech: “It is the zenith of honor for a man, a young person, boy or girl, to be prepared to sacrifice his life in order to serve the interests of his nation and his religion.”
How should Western democracies fight against an enemy whose leaders preach a preference for death?
The two basic premises of conventional warfare have long been that soldiers and civilians prefer living to dying and can thus be deterred from killing by the fear of being killed; and that combatants (soldiers) can easily be distinguished from noncombatants (women, children, the elderly, the infirm and other ordinary citizens). These premises are being challenged by women like Zahra Maladan. Neither she nor her son — if he listens to his mother — can be deterred from killing by the fear of being killed. They must be prevented from succeeding in their ghoulish quest for martyrdom. Prevention, however, carries a high risk of error. The woman walking toward the group of soldiers or civilians might well be an innocent civilian. A moment’s hesitation may cost innocent lives. But a failure to hesitate may also have a price.
Late last month, a young female bomber was shot as she approached some shops in central Baghdad. The Iraqi soldier who drew his gun hesitated as the bomber, hands raised, insisted that she wasn’t armed. The soldier and a shop owner finally opened fire as she dashed for the stores; she was knocked to the ground but still managed to detonate the bomb, killing three and wounding eight. Had the soldier and other bystanders not called out a warning to others — and had they not shot her before she could enter the shops — the death toll certainly would have been higher. Had he not hesitated, it might have been lower.
As more women and children are recruited by their mothers and their religious leaders to become suicide bombers, more women and children will be shot at — some mistakenly. That too is part of the grand plan of our enemies. They want us to kill their civilians, who they also consider martyrs, because when we accidentally kill a civilian, they win in the court of public opinion. One Western diplomat called this the “harsh arithmetic of pain,” whereby civilian casualties on both sides “play in their favor.” Democracies lose, both politically and emotionally, when they kill civilians, even inadvertently. As Golda Meir once put it: “We can perhaps someday forgive you for killing our children, but we cannot forgive you for making us kill your children.”
Civilian casualties also increase when terrorists operate from within civilian enclaves and hide behind human shields. This relatively new phenomenon undercuts the second basic premise of conventional warfare: Combatants can easily be distinguished from noncombatants. Has Zahra Maladan become a combatant by urging her son to blow himself up? Have the religious leaders who preach a culture of death lost their status as noncombatants? What about “civilians” who willingly allow themselves to be used as human shields? Or their homes as launching pads for terrorist rockets?
The traditional sharp distinction between soldiers in uniform and civilians in nonmilitary garb has given way to a continuum. At the more civilian end are babies and true noncombatants; at the more military end are the religious leaders who incite mass murder; in the middle are ordinary citizens who facilitate, finance or encourage terrorism. There are no hard and fast lines of demarcation, and mistakes are inevitable — as the terrorists well understand.
We need new rules, strategies and tactics to deal effectively and fairly with these dangerous new realities. We cannot simply wait until the son of Zahra Maladan — and the sons and daughters of hundreds of others like her — decide to follow his mother’s demand. We must stop them before they export their sick and dangerous culture of death to our shores.
Mr. Dershowitz teaches law at Harvard University and is the author of “Finding Jefferson” (Wiley, 2007).