This week’s suicide-by-hanging of three Guantanamo prisoners has been variously described by Camp Commander Rear Admiral Harry Harris and the Department of State’s Colleen Gruffy as “asymmetrical warfare,” “a good PR move to draw attention,” and “a tactic to further the jihadi cause.”

It seems to me that these statements, in and of themselves, are some of the more remarkable examples of “PR moves,” more commonly known as “spin,” produced by the Bush administration thus far. “Spin,” however, inadequately describe the kinds of semantic and verbal contortions and acrobatics necessary to turn a suicide, with no victim other than the perpetrator, into an act of “asymmetrical warfare” rather than despair. PR move, perhaps, but only if one seeks to stretch the definition of “public relations” so that it includes “protest” and, more particularly, suicide as protest. This is not Bush administration “spin,” but Bush administration “fandango.” Indeed, such statements are nothing more than complicated, but nonsensical verbal maneuvers designed to obfuscate a very tragic situation and mitigate public criticism. The administration’s PR fandango backfired, however, when these statements rang harsh. Tony Snow tried a quick back step, but, too late, as the dance had been executed, so to speak.

Let’s consider the definition of “public relations” and determine whether it applies more accurately to the suicides or to the administration’s statements about them. According to the online Free Dictionary, which sources the American Heritage Dictionary, “PR” or “public relations” is, “the art or science of establishing and promoting a favorable relationship with the public”; “the methods and activities employed to establish and promote a favorable relationship with the public”; or, “the degree of success obtained in achieving a favorable relationship with the public.” “Promotion,” designated as a “related word,” denotes “a message issued in behalf of some product or cause or idea or person or institution.” Perhaps Ms Graffy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, meant to use the word “promotion” rather than “PR” in describing the suicides? The Hamas suicide bomber who brings a busload of Israelis to their deaths with him, regardless of his essential motive, is both sending a message and promoting a favorable Hamas relationship with those non-Hamas that wish to see Israelis dead and who glorify martyrdom (both promotion and PR). The Guantanomo prisoner, most likely acting out of desperation and killing only himself, is sending a message, but with whom is he seeking to curry favor? If one accepts the allegation that he is a terrorist, as yet unproven in a court of law, then those who glorify him as a martyr already support his cause. Those who revile him as a terrorist are not sorry to see him dead. Others may feel sorrow, indifference, pity, or compassion, but he gains little to nothing from their reaction. Promotion, perhaps, but public relations? I don’t think so, Ms. Graffy. Perhaps today’s Public Diplomats are not well-schooled in public discourse? Perhaps, for this is not the first inanity to come out of Ms. Graffy’s mouth, despite, or perhaps due to, her years at the Inns of Court. That the statements were at least partially retracted when they failed to achieve the desired affect is indication enough of their public relations intent. One cannot retract a suicide.

And have these suicides, if more accurately described as “promotion,” succeeded in “draw[ing] attention” to the plight of captives held incommunicado and/or indefinitely, without due process? It seems that the suicides have only drawn the attention of the usual groups—human and civil rights organizations and those on the left wing of the political spectrum. Have they significantly attracted the attention of the average American or European mainstream media, the US Congress and judicial system, the United Nations, or the clergy, who should be the conscious of the populace? I think not. I have not heard one word from, for example, our most powerful representatives in Washington, European parliaments and leaders, or the Vatican.

What is “asymmetrical warfare,” anyway? This is a new one on me. After consulting Wikipedia, I learned that the meaning is both convoluted and vexed, as evidenced by the length of the article (longer than the entry,” Introduction to Special Relativity”), by the disclaimer, ”the neutrality and factual accuracy of this article are disputed,” and by the comments in the ensuing talk pages (all vexed, convoluted, and lengthy). No surprise, here, given that this is a bit of military jargon that’s meant to apply pseudo-scientific terms to what is essentially organized barbarism. In any event, asymmetrical warfare seems to refer to unorthodox tactics used by a weaker power in a conflict or, more precisely, a war, as indicated in the noun. Again, the term may be accurate when used to describe the Hamas suicide bomber. But I cannot see how a suicide in which a powerless perpetrator of legally and publicly indeterminate or ambiguous allegiance kills only him or herself for indeterminate (but apparent) reasons (hopelessness) can result in a strategic advantage or any kind of triumph over the perceived enemy. If Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, at the height of their respective conflicts, had committed suicide as a form of protest, it would likely have sparked actions that may or may not have resulted in victories for their respective causes. They each, however, represented distinct groups with distinct enemies in distinct conflicts with relatively distinct beginnings and ends, and they each carried sufficient power to mobilize others. The Guantanamo suicides undoubtedly knew that their acts would send a political message (as do all suicides–even, and especially, those of desperation), but it is difficult to see what tactical victory was achieved by this message. More Al-Qaeda recruits? When Al-Qaeda has the occupation of Iraq, the annexation of Palestine, the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, the Crusades, colonialism, poverty, and, above all, blind faith, to garner recruits? Western sympathy for the devil? Perhaps, but suicides generally elicit anger, guilt, and pity from their intended audiences, not compassion. Could these men have believed that the American public would be guilt-tripped into closing Guantanamo? Maybe, and, if so, more power to them. Political act? Yes. Act of desperation? Yes. Asymmetrical warfare? I don’t see how or why.

But assuming that one accepts the assessment of these suicides as acts of asymmetrical warfare, the suicides are only three in a long history of suicide missions, not exclusive to Islamists or jihadists. As acts of political martyrdom, they are, again only three in a long history of those, of which the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, the most successful “PR move” in history, is perhaps the most prominent.

Isn’t all military combat, to a greater or lesser extent, a suicide mission? Doesn’t the soldier, stepping into harm’s way by choice or otherwise, need to accept that death may be the ultimate outcome of his or her service to the cause? Some confrontations, such as the US Civil War or World War I, presented very dim prospects of survival for the average soldier, yet, didn’t the soldiers soldier forth, by choice or otherwise? What about protest? The infamous “tank man” of Beijing has been justifiably lionized, not reviled, for stepping in front of a tank that would, more likely than not, have run him down. Isn’t the suicide protester or suicide bomber simply a more extreme version of the average protester or soldier?

And finally, I wonder if the chicken hawks in the Bush administration can imagine the courage and strength of will that it takes to step in front of a tank or meticulously fashion a noose out of scant clothing, place your head into it, and proceed to simultaneously snap your own neck and gag yourself? Or the courage, if villainy, that it takes to strap a bomb to oneself and blow oneself, literally, to bits? Is this something that one could possibly do other than out of despair, political or personal? Are bourgeois technocrats like Colleen Gruffy or Admiral Harris even capable of understanding desperation?

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