There's only one cult more dangerous than Scientology, says Judge Geoffrey Miller, and it's this one.
"A person without fear of death is one of the most deadly weapons imaginable."—Robert Baer
I'm young enough that suicide bombers have seemingly always been around. When I started to pay attention to the world around me and current events in the mid-'90s, it was already common to see reports of suicide attacks in Israel on the news. It was something that seemed omnipresent yet distant—disturbing but not of particularly immediate concern to myself.
That has all changed now, of course. After Sept. 11, the Bali bombings, and the London bus attacks, we know that terrorism through suicide bombing can strike anyone and anywhere. I know I'm not the only one full of questions about this looming threat. What drives these people to give up their lives—often while still in the prime of their youth? What culture has given rise to this mindset?
Leading us through this world is Robert Baer, an ex-CIA agent whose book, See No Evil, was the basis for the film Syriana. (He was also, as the back cover proudly proclaims, the basis for George Clooney's character in the movie.) Baer, a nondescript middle-aged white man, has exactly the combination of anonymity and quiet, hardened resolve you'd expect from a government spook. While other people are technically credited with producing and directing the film, it is without a doubt Baer's child. Much like Michael Moore (who he has an odd vocal similarity to), he is the narrator, sole interviewer, and ostensible star.
The film starts in Tehran, capital of Iran. Baer attends a church service full of vitriolic anti-American speeches. He gives us a short history lesson on Islam and Iran. The roots of "the cult" start here, according to Baer, with the Iran-Iraq war and a story about giving up one's life in battle that's important to Iran's predominantly Shi'a Muslim population. With the zeal of crusaders, young Iranian man went off to war facing almost certain death. A 13-year-old boy who blew himself up in order to halt advancing Iraqi forces became a hero, inspiring others.
The first true suicide bombings, in the modern sense of their use as tools for either terrorism or guerrilla warfare, began in Lebanon during its civil war in the '80s. Hezbollah started targeting Americans around this time, with their bombing of the US embassy and the infamous Beirut barracks attack. The concept of "martyrdom," as most of the subjects interviewed sympathetic to cause define it, takes hold not only as a useful military tactic, but as a virtuous way to die. It is this view of suicide bombers—as martyrs giving themselves in a spiritual sacrifice—that Baer posits as the primary reason that the cult has spread.
The last hotspot is, of course, Palestine, where suicide bombers (usually targeting civilians) have been the main weapon against Israel. Baer doesn't take sides in the complex Israel-Palestine conflict, other than to condemn suicide bombing. He visits with victims on both sides of the conflict, including a bouncer who miraculously survived a bomber who detonated right on top of him. A trip to an Israeli prison that houses terrorists is both depressing and affecting.
A final epilogue concerns the recent spread of suicide bombing to the Western world. The London bus bombings are given special consideration because they signal a change in motive: There was no apparent reason for them other than to spread fear. The spate of suicide bombings in Iraq is also examined. In an ironic twist, the Iraqi suicide bombers are primarily Sunni Muslims attacking Shi'a Muslims, even though the original suicide bombers were Shi'as (against the Iraqi Sunnis in the Iran-Iraq war). Baer interviews an Iraqi Shi'a cleric, who strongly denounces the practice of suicide bombing.
I don't question Baer's knowledge or his passion for the topic at hand, but he is woefully inadequate at both organizing his ideas and performing in front of the camera. He often flies all over the place thematically, dropping names, concepts, and ideas with little care for viewers that might not have his knowledge of Middle Eastern politics and culture. It's not unusual for him to suddenly change topics, going on a semi-related tangent that may have little to do with suicide bombings. (Do we really need to know that Baer feels Iran has been covertly engaged in war with America for decades?) His poorly paced, monotone delivery makes sorting the details out even more difficult.
The best moments are the ones where Baer steps back and lets others do the talking. The eyes of a young woman recording her last wishes on a grainy videotape say more than Baer ever could. The regular people Baer interviews—families of suicide bombers as well as victims—reveal their innermost thoughts. Parents of suicide bombers often display a combination of pride and grief: They may welcome the adulation from their neighbors and friends, but they, too, seem to struggle with the senselessness of the loss.
The Cult of the Suicide Bomber is a bare-bones DVD with almost no features. There are no bonuses or even subtitles. The picture and sound quality is acceptable. Although obviously shot on cheap DV (and likely edited quickly and inexpensively on a laptop), it's clear and crisp. One other thing worth nothing: It's region-free, something of a rarity for a modern commercial release.
I want to cut The Cult of the Suicide Bomber some slack. It was obviously a labor of love for Baer, and it's tackling one of the most important subjects in geopolitics today. But it's too scattershot, too unfocused to recommend. A good documentary illuminates its subject, making sense out of even its most complex, contradictory facets. But The Cult of the Suicide Bomber leaves more questions than answers.
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