The Worst of Times
With a Social Psychology textbook in my lap, I am trying to decide what to say about Paradise Now. I’m having trouble. I want to talk about in-group bias and out-group bias and group polarization, and education, and men versus women – but it would probably be best, for the moment, to talk only about Paradise Now.
Let’s start with this: It’s a movie. It’s a strong, interesting movie about two young men who are enlisted in a suicide bombing mission. Anticipating destruction, you can’t breathe when it starts. Anticipating destruction, you can’t breathe when it ends. That’s the way things go in the Middle East. In Lebanon, they party every night like it’s the last time, because it could be.
Said and Khaled live in the West Bank and work at an auto mechanic. They’re approached by shady terror-coordinators who tell them The Hour Has Arrived; dazed and confused, they go spend one last evening with their families. In the morning, they go to an abandoned factory, have bombs strapped to their bodies, receive instructions, and try to get into Israel. The bombs are set to explode if Said and Khaled try to remove them themselves and ditch the terrorism project. It’s a fact, but it’s said like a threat.
Something goes wrong, and the two get split up. Khaled goes back, has his bomb removed, and spends the whole day looking for Said. The terror-coordinators are pissed because Said could be telling on them right now. He isn’t. Said gets into Israel, tries to commit himself and blow up a bus, but can’t do it when he sees a child wandering down the aisle. Start over.
Said’s father was a “collaborator.” We never know what he did for Israel, but he was killed when Said was ten-years-old. People don’t let Said forget the sins of his father, and all would be forgiven if he blew up this bus – but he can’t. So he goes back into the West Bank and wanders. In a scene that’s horrifying in its simplicity, he goes into a bathroom and wipes the sweat – as much as he can – from under the bomb. At night, he goes to his father’s grave, lays on it, and reaches for the detonator. Walking around with a bomb strapped to you all day must mess with your head like crazy — sort of like mock execution.
Said is found, the bomb is removed and he makes a decision. He’s going to do it. He thinks he has no other choice. After all the arguments and indecision, it comes down to this: he’s alone. He’s already dead. He can’t be beaten down by discussion, or by his friend’s tears, or by thoughts of his family. He’s been allowed out of the West Bank once in his life, when he was six, and it wasn’t enough.
I don’t know about the psychology of suicide bombers, or how accurate this film is. Except for Israeli checkpoints, the characters have essentially no contact with any Israelis – and I imagine that’s true to life. In the film, there’s a Palestinian woman who has spent her life in France, is a member of a humanitarian group, and pleads the case that there is another way. She sees that because she’s been outside. Once Said has overcome his fear of death, however, he takes the narrow view: “If they take on the role of oppressor and victim then I have no other choice but to also be a victim…and a murderer as well.”
He’s wrong, but he’s never been forgiven for what his father did, and he’s never met an Israeli, and he’s been told all his life that he has nothing because he’s Palestinian. What would the world be like if we didn’t drag around the baggage and history of our in-groups? We’re so much alike, you and I, after all.
I have a secret: I used to consider becoming like Bill O’Reilly and encouraging bias for lots of money, then being somewhat reasonable when Jon Stewart had me on as a guest. I don’t anymore. I just want to be friends. So next time you’re in town, knock on my door. I don’t believe in this world sorrow; do you?
Image credit: Warner Bros.