Book review - The Price of Paradise: How the Suicide Bomber Shaped the Modern Age

Book review - The Price of Paradise: How the Suicide Bomber Shaped the Modern Age
Body parts of a suicide bomber near Karnak Temple in Luxor, Egypt, in 2015. No tourists were killed or hurt. Picture: AP Photo

The Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War 2 crashed into targets, but the modern use of suicide-bombing began when a boy of 13 sacrificed himself during the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, says Frank MacGabhann.

THIS book reminded me of the chilling video of the young backpacker who patted the small child on the head, before entering a Catholic Church in Sri Lanka last Easter Sunday to blow it and himself up. However, the story of the suicide bomber does not begin in Sri Lanka, or in the Middle East, or in Afghanistan, but in the farthest reaches of Europe, in the Russia of the czars. 

The author, Iain Overton, an expert on international terrorism and counter-terrorism, is the executive director of Action on Armed Violence, a London research group that monitors and investigates armed violence around the world.

Overton visits the spot where it all began, in St. Petersburg. There now stands a beautiful cathedral, officially called the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, but the Russians call it ‘The Cathedral of the Spilled Blood of Christ.’ Christ’s blood was not spilled there, but Czar Alexander II’s was, in 1881. 

Some Russian friends of mine, years ago, explained to me the theology of the Russian Orthodox Church. It was quite straightforward: “God was the Czar and the Czar was God,” which may explain why Russians, greatly influenced by Mikael Bakunin, the leading anarchist thinker, and by the fact that 85% of them lived in squalid, dire conditions, resorted to desperate measures. 

The bomb that killed the czar weighed only five pounds and had a blast range of just one metre, so the assassin had to get close to his victim, and sacrifice himself. The advent of the suicide bomb ensured the death of the assassin.

The first large-scale suicide bombing was perpetrated by the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II. For eleven months until the end of the war, three thousand Japanese pilots died, not in aerial combat against American fighter planes, but by deliberately flying into US battleships and aircraft carriers. Instead of dropping bombs, their planes were the bombs. 

The inspiration were the Japanese pilots whose planes had been hit and crippled and who were going down anyway and who aimed at ships or other targets. But the kamikaze became the official war policy of the Japanese empire. The Japanese pilots believed that their emperor was divine and that they were going straight to Shinto-heaven. 

The wife of one kamikaze pilot killed herself and their two children before he flew his mission, so that he would not have anything to live for. These attacks, which killed or wounded 10,000 people, struck terror into the hearts of American sailors in the Pacific and contributed to the US decision to use the atom bomb in August 1945.

The next suicide bomber was a 13-year-old boy fighting in the Iranian Army, who threw himself under an Iraqi tank in 1980, during the Iran-Iraq War, and then pulled the pin of his grenade. The boy immediately became a hero and role model and 52,00 Iranians subsequently were enlisted, or volunteered, to be suicide bombers. Many young boys were sent out to look for land mines; if they were unlucky, they found them. 

Iran inaugurated a state programme, ‘Sacrifice a Child for the Iman,’ which rewarded the families. The Imam, of course, was Ayatollah Khomeni, who gave not only gave his blessing to the suicide bomber, but declared they would go straight to paradise and Allah. The Iranians are Shia Muslims. If they were the ones who popularised the suicide bomb, then their Shia cousins in Lebanon perfected it. In December 1981, the Iraqi embassy in Beirut was destroyed by a massive suicide car bomber. Since the beginning of the 1980s, suicide bombs have killed 32,000 people in the Middle East.

THE Provisional IRA devised the ‘proxy bomb.’ They forced someone else to drive the vehicle that detonated the bomb. Terrorists have attempted to use donkeys, dolphins, chickens, birds, bats, and cats as suicide bombers. ISIS wives worry that their soon-to-be martyred suicide bomber husband may find some of the 72 virgins that will be his reward from Allah in paradise more attractive than them. These virgins are “beautiful, lovely-eyed, and fully-breasted” mystical beings, according to the Prophet. One suicide bomber had wrapped tissure around his penis, apparently to preserve it for his orgies in heaven.

Iain Overton is an investigative journalist and expert on terrorism.
Iain Overton is an investigative journalist and expert on terrorism.

The author is very good on the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The Sunnis, who hate Shias as heretics, eventually came around to adopting the Shia idea of sacrifice, which had itself morphed into self-sacrifice and was taken to to its logical and terrifying conclusion in the 9/11 plane attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001.

Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, but the US, instead, invaded Afganistan and Iraq, with devastating consequences for those countries and the world. Of course, the US had been supplying both Osama bin Laden’s fighters and Sadaam Hussein’s Iraq with much of their armaments.

Inexplicably, The Price of Paradise has no index, which greatly diminishes its usefulness, especially given that the author has packed in many interesting facts and observations and has travelled far and wide to interview survivors of suicide bombers and even failed suicide bombers. He goes to mosques in Muslim neighbourhoods in Britain and discusses the role of the local iman in the formation of these suicide bombers. The book, however, is marred by platitudes, such as the author’s statement that jihadist suicide bombings “are disproportionate, lack perspective, and are marked by an extreme lack of empathy.”

Is it necessary to buy this book to learn that? We are not talking about people who are simply rude: we are talking about killers, about actions that blow faces off, that cause lifelong internal bleeding, that maim children. And Overton goes on to remark that these bombings set out to destroy the canons of multiculturalism”. What canons are these? This is intellectual gobblydegook.

But in speaking at conferences at the United Nations about suicide attacks, he has been repeatedly (and absurdly) told not to mention ‘Islam.’ Overall. this well-written book is extremely interesting, but quite depressing.

Book review - The Price of Paradise: How the Suicide Bomber Shaped the Modern Age

The Price of Paradise: How the Suicide Bomber Shaped the Modern Age

Iain Overton

Quercus Editions, €35.00

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