It’s December 1, 1955 in Montgomery Alabama. Bus driver James F. Blake tells seamstress Rosa Parks to move from her seat to make room for white passengers. Instead of moving, she detonates herself killing most of the people onboard and leaving the bus a charred and twisted hulk.
Could you imagine such a scenario? Such violence would have completely changed American history. What would have been the response from the white community? Would the civil rights movement have become the second act of the Civil War? What would the state of race relations in America be now? Considering the duration of armed resistance in Ireland, Sri Lanka, and the Middle East this conflict could have continued to this day.
On January 27, 2002 on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem, Wafa Idris became the first Palestinian female suicide bomber. The explosion killed one man and injured about 100 people. Her actions had the desired effect of shocking the world. Presumably, she and others believe that their desperation justifies desperate measures. Her mother said, “I hope every daughter will do what my daughter did.”
Both Rosa Parks and Wafa Idris are dramatic symbols of their resistance movements. Each is portrayed as an unyielding heroine against oppression. Yet this simplistic view denies the fact that they were integral parts of a broader network with divergent goals.
Rosa Parks had long been active in the civil rights movement. She worked with the Montgomery Voters League and joined the N.A.A.C.P. in 1943. She was also an associate of Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council, as well as lawyer and activist E. D. Nixon. Nixon was former head of the N.A.A.C.P. and would later organize her defense. Robinson and her organization were preparing for a citywide bus boycott as early as 1954. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown decision that same year that outlawed separate but equal policies provided E. D. Nixon the legal basis to challenge Montgomery’s segregated bus seating ordinance.
Unknown to many, Parks was not the first person detained for refusing to give up her seat. In March 1955, Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old girl, was the first person arrested. When her parents needed help to raise money and get a lawyer, they called the N.A.A.C.P. local secretary–Rosa Parks. Later, in October, 18-year old Mary Louise Smith was also arrested. Both Colvin and Smith were deemed unsuitable candidates to personify the Negro cause. A person above reproach was needed to withstand the intense scrutiny from the press and the courts.
When Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus that day, she was fully aware of the possible consequences. Given the tactics of the civil rights movement and, more importantly, Parks’ religious beliefs, a suicide mission was out of the question. The political climate was ripe for change through the judicial system. Violence against blacks was still prevalent in the south, and Parks could have been killed. In August that year, 14-year-old Emmitt Till was murdered in the neighboring state of Mississippi because of remarks he made to a white woman.
Dying for a cause is as old as warfare itself. The act of becoming a soldier unequivocally states a willingness to die. The kamikaze pilots of Japan during the Second World War were volunteers proud to die for the Emperor and their country. Antagonists have used many forms of self-sacrifice and nihilism. The use of women also heightens the sense of urgency in such cases. On June 2, 1963, Superior Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire to protest the treatment of Buddhists by South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Then on August 15, a nun, Dieu Quang, immolated herself in the Tu Dam Pagoda. One of the most gruesome assassinations ever was carried out by the “belt bomber” Dahnu of the Tamil Tigers against Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi. While campaigning, Dahnu handed him flowers then detonated explosives attached to her body, killing 16 people.
Like Dahnu, Wafa Idris and other suicide bombers’ effectiveness comes from the combination of the dramatic symbolism of self-sacrifice and the murderous assault of explosives. They literally and figuratively scare the enemy to death.
Wafa Idris was a medical secretary for the Red Crescent Society. Being on the front lines of the Intifada, she cared for the injured and witnessed the carnage created when rock throwers violently stand against tanks. As a resident of the Amari refugee camp she was fully steeped in the resentment and despair created by the military and political conflict. The Red Crescent has stated that it is opposed to the use of suicide attacks. Yet individuals working within the society have been accused of using their medical accreditation and vehicles in aiding Idris’ attack. Ambulance drivers Mohammed Hababa and Munzar Noor who also worked for the Red Crescent are under investigation by the Palestinian Security Services for aiding Idris. During her funeral, which was symbolized by an empty flag-draped casket, flyers from the militant al-Aqsa Brigades announced that she had carried out the bombing in response to Israeli military action.
Two months after carrying out her assault, the Israeli Defense Forces demolished the home of Wafa Idris. Such destruction typifies the phenomenon of Palestinian suicide bombings. Once the smoke clears there is nothing left. No house, no corpse, and no future. This misconceived martyrdom does not leave a legacy to build upon. Conquering the formidable task of decolonization and self-governing requires equal fearlessness. When statehood is finally achieved, how will the Palestinians handle internal strife? Hopefully not by killing themselves.
Ten days before Idris’ actions, the U. S. National Parks Service placed the home of Rosa Parks on the National Register of Historic Places. Parks has received numerous awards and citations. Some by the same institutions she and the movement rallied against. During a ceremony honoring her with the Congressional Gold Medal, former President Bill Clinton said “In so many ways Rosa Parks brought America home to our founders’ dream.”
The struggle for equality is flawed and far from over in the United States, but the civil rights movement took the bus that lead to the construction of a better society for all citizens. The continued use of violence by Israel and Palestine locks them into a circular path of destruction.
The Palestinian reaction to occupation need not mirror the tactics of the American civil rights movement. But it should force Israel to live up to its highest standards by engaging their most powerful weapon: their minds. Such a conversion would compel Israel to make the term “never again” stand for everyone.