To a Terrorist (Concerning Martyrdom)

Martyrdom: a word with two very different common settings. All those who have died for Christ, from St. Stephen to St. Thomas à Becket to St. Maximilian Kolbe, are martyrs. The title is also reasonably applied to those who die for their countries, friends, or families; to all those who give up their lives because something greater can be gained by the purchase, whether it’s the safety of others, or the lasting of a truth, or because, in the last toss-up, the life of the eternal soul is a better bargain than the life of the mortal-anyways body. So that is one connotation that springs to mind. Another is that Islamic terrorists on suicide missions call themselves martyrs.

These are very different—and I don’t mean in differences of religion, but in the fundamental meaning of their act. But why? What makes the great difference between these two groups of people who lost their lives when they could have kept them? While I know nothing more of it than a few sentences, a story I read in Nightwatch almost two years ago helped me to see some of that great difference. So here is the story; and afterward the sonnet I have written in reflection on it.

Most witnesses reported that quick action by a brave young police lieutenant who grabbed the bomber in a bear hug before he detonated prevented many more casualties…

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. The group’s news outlet Amaq posted a note, “An Islamic State martyrdom seeker has detonated his suicide vest in the midst of a gathering of Afghanistan Islamic Society Party members in central Kabul”.

NightWatch, November 16, 2017

To a Terrorist
By Emma Vanderpol

You two died just the same. Same time, same bombs,
Same willed embrace of death. The world knows
That with bombs worn or hugged, the same death comes.
Your friends call you both martyrs. Who’s to choose?
And what is martyrdom but suicide,
The choice and chase of death? One of you wrapped
Himself in death; the other of you wrapped
That death within his arms. You are both dead.

But no. There lie whole worlds of difference
(And one of you at least knew they are real)
Between death sought that you might seek and kill
And death embraced in other lives’ defense:
You died for death, and take what your choice gives;
He died for life, and for his death he lives.

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