Saturday, June 20, 2015

Thunderbirds, Heroism, and Suicide Bombers: A Teaching Moment

While discussing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, one of my students in a history class asked how suicide bombers could do what they do. I told them a personal story. The Thunderbirds were a high-performance United States Air Force aerobatics team of six pilots who flew T-38s back in the 1980s. When I was a teenager, I had gone to a church event where two Thunderbird pilots came to talk. I was too shy to go up afterwards and shake either of their hands.

The following day I was among the tens of thousands up at Hill Air Force Base standing along the runway watching the Thunderbirds go through their paces. It was very impressive. Then we noticed that a plane was missing and there was a spiral of smoke coming from the south, beyond the end of the runway. The fire engines went roaring down the runway while the remaining Thunderbirds continued with the rest of their show.

Many people had stopped their cars along the road at the end of the runaway to watch the show. The plane’s engines flared out and the pilot had only a moment to make the decision: eject or ride the plane into the ground in order to try to protect the bystanders. He rode the T-38 into the ground, crashing in an empty field, though a horse was decapitated.

He essentially committed suicide. I asked my class: what was that pilot? It was a somber class, but one student volunteered, “A hero.” Exactly. He chose to die for a higher cause; in his case, saving the lives of others. Suicide bombers die for a higher cause, not a cause that we believe in, but often a cause that their community, friends, and comrades believe in. They are heros or heroines to their fellow believers. For them, their lives have meaning, and their manner of death is noble and honorable, just as that Thunderbird pilot’s life and death had meaning.

I agree that there are essential differences between the two. The pilot died in order to save lives, while the suicide bomber died in order to take lives, but war requires death and sacrifice. Often deaths during war are random, while the suicide bomber has chosen to assert control over their own death in order to make their life worth something.

Just to complete the story. At every air show that I have seen at Hill Air Force Base since then, the police make sure that no one parks at the end of the runway. The pilot had a wife and children that he left behind and he was one of the two Thunderbird pilots that had attended the church event the night before. I googled the event and found that it happened on May 9, 1981.

Posted: 20 June 2015

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