I thought for a moment, shrugged and replied, “Suicide bomber.”
Martyrs come in all shapes and sizes. Some wore chainmail and big red crosses on their tunics. Others used airplanes to plow into warships. More recently, folks like to pack vests full of C-4 and a few hundred nails or marbles and strap them to their chests.
According to a report conducted by Reuters in 2007, an estimated 2,360 persons were killed by about 37 suicide bombers in Iraq between February of 2004 and August of 2007. That’s 63.9 victims (not including the wounded) per martyr.
Kamikaze pilots, whose name means “divine wind,” delivered over 2,800 airborne strikes against U.S. warships during World War 2. Their results: 34 ships sunk, 368 damaged, 4,900 Navy personnel killed and another 4,800 wounded (Dr. Richard P Hallion, 1999, “Precision Weapons, Power Projection, and the Revolution in Military Affairs”, USAF Historical Studies Office). That’s one pilot for every 1.75 U.S. Navy personnel killed, and one for every 3.46 casualties total. These numbers do not take into account the effects of kamikaze attacks on the naval vessels of other Allied nations or the Japanese ground-based suicide methods known as “banzai charges.”
Few other weapons deliver a more demoralizing and efficient blow than the martyr hell-bent on success.
Many view such actions and violence with disgust, fear, and condemnation. Favorite adjectives include “fanatics,” “fundamentalist,” “radicals,” and “indoctrinated.” Surely these sadistic automatons deserve only a straightjacket and a liberal dose of “free love.”
The Western world, and more specifically the U.S., has their own heroes and banzai warriors. Martin Luther King, Jr., partially inspired by fellow martyr Mahatma Ghandi, stood for civil rights, relief for the poor and racial equality. He gave himself completely to the non-violent protest of injustice and paid for this effort with his life.
Remember the Spartans? Hollywood loves a good sacrifice yarn, and what would be more dramatic, more climactic than 300 scantily clad Greeks handing it to wave after wave of barbaric Persians? Their deed (as well as the lesser acknowledged sea battle in the Artimisium Straits) is credited to have persevered a burgeoning Western civilization and by extension, democracy itself.
An epitaph bearing the following words marks the pass called Thermopylae where the battle took place:
“Go tell the Spartans, passerby: That here, by Spartan law, we lie.” (Frank Miller, 300).
Sound familiar? Modern political commentators love quoting isolated passages in the Qur’an that call for sacrifice and “death to the infidel” as proof of Islam’s obsession with the establishment of the Ummah. A similar case is found with the Christian concept of Jesus returning to wipe out evil in the battle of Armageddon, and the Jews who patiently await a messiah to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and restore the kingdom of Israel.
Of course, these are but a few examples of groups whose interpretation of scripture is used to mold history. It’s all relative.
But there is some light here, a positive grain of truth amidst this dark stain on humanity. What if we stopped arguing over one man’s hero being another man’s fanatic and glean a lesson from this mess? One thing these individuals have in common is that they possess a selfless, unadulterated resolve and cold, polished, balls (ovaries for the ladies) of steel.
When was the last time you stood up for something? How much would it hurt to surrender your ego to something larger than yourself, to demote yourself to a column instead of that which rests on top?
Think it’s hard? Damn straight it is. Consider the single mom working three jobs for little more than the hope that her kids will have a life better than her? How about the monk who sets himself on fire to protest an injustice? Take the pastor, rabbi, imam, or priest on call virtually 24-7 to serve and council their communities—often negating their own families. Then there’s the soldier who for no better reason than brotherly love, lobs himself onto a grenade to save his comrade. Notice that there are no guarantees for success here. Then again, that isn’t the point.
None of them probably think too much about the cost of their sacrifice. They live in the moment. A requirement for action is involved and becomes instinctual. Their reward is in the security, pleasure, and well-being of others and yes, this disposition exists even in those who use martyrdom for destruction. This might have been what Jesus talked about when he asked us to love our neighbors as ourselves, or why the bodhavistas sacrifice nirvana lifetime after lifetime to help others. The energy of a martyr possesses the same properties as fire, electricity, or even words, and therefore to be of any benefit must be channeled in a peaceful and altruistic way.
Can you think of something or someone to give yourself to without thought of reward that would contribute to a better world? You could start by getting more involved in your children’s lives. Volunteer at a literacy center. Stand up for someone who at one time you might have considered an enemy. Buy another round for a stranger down on their luck. Tip the waiter at least fifteen percent.
Ready to do this? The following passage will get you started. We’ll call it “The Martyr’s Creed”, a mantra if you will, to help acclimate yourself to the martyr’s mindset.
“A martyr’s peace is absolute zero. Not a lack of warmth, but within and without, a profound stasis. Her aura glows, like lightning shrouded in clouds. Each crystalline thought passes through her mind at a glacial pace like a Sunday morning drive. Every synaptic burst unfurls in arcs of light, articulating frame by frame, before collapsing into the void.”
Say this three times fast, every morning as you shave or apply make-up. Embrace the flame of change and compassion and ignite in a phosphorous glow of selfless glory. Indeed, when you help just one person, when you pour your heart and being into a noble task, the whole world at that very moment rests in your hands.
So raise your glasses, my dirty masses. This is the Kingdom of Heaven, the Utopia of lore that is on the cusp of reality if we would only have faith in ourselves. All it will cost is your life, sweat, and love without regret. Hell, there might even be a pat on the back and a cold beer set aside in Paradise as compensation for your efforts.