Recomposing Decimated Bodies
A suicide bomber insinuates him or herself into a crowd at a popular coﬀee shop in Tel-Aviv. Without warning, bodies are sent ﬂying; organs and limbs are dismembered; and the entire expanse is instantaneously ruined. Pandemonium sets in: eye-witnesses are overcome with panic; passersby attempt to help the wounded; and sirens wail in the distance. The police, paramedics, and other professional rescue and recovery forces rush to the scene, administer ﬁrst-aid, resuscitate victims, and dispatch the injured to the hospitals. By dint of the death tolls incurred, the seriousness and complexity of the wounds, and the horror, hysteria, and disgust they sow, the suicide attacks are indeed an eﬀective mode of terrorism. The literature deﬁnes terrorist attacks as a form of disaster – sudden occurrences that cause considerable
harm and disrupt the social order (Erikson, 1976). To date, the majority of studies on terrorism and suicide bombers have concentrated on the perpetrators’ techniques, activities, and motivations (Stern, 1999) as well as the fear and plight of the victims (Daniels, 1996; Das, 1990; Green, 1999; Prior, 1989; Suarez-Orozco, 1990). This topic is all the more relevant when taking into account the worldwide spike in terrorist attacks, especially those commited by suicide bombers, in places as diverse as Russia, the United States, England, France, Sri Lanka, India, Iraq, Indonesia, and Spain. Needless to say, these events have an impact on a wide range of areas, not least state economies, tourism, politics, and security. In light of these developments, sociologists have endeavored to ascertain the reasons behind these violent attempts to undermine the social order (Atran, 2003; Bloom, 2005; Hassan, 2008). For instance, Atran claims that terrorism’s primary target is not the people who are actually killed or maimed, but those compelled to see the carnage, be they eyewitnesses or people watching the evening news. Atran also describes the inner psyche of suicide cells: ‘Through indoctrination and training and under charismatic leaders, self contained suicide cells canalize disparate religious or political sentiments of individuals into an emotionally bonded group of ﬁctive kin who willfully commit to die spectacularly for one another and for what is perceived as the common good of alleviating the community’s onerous political and social realities’ (Atran, 2003: 1534). Missing, however, from the reams of studies on terrorism’s macro-social eﬀect is the extensive damage
caused to the human body itself. For the most part, researchers have also overlooked the attendant rise of what Jonathan Parry refers to as ‘death specialists,’2 namely practitioners who have assumed responsibility for treating the injured and tending to the victim’s bodies. The emergence of these specialists has given rise
to questions concerning the ideal of the whole or unmarred body vis-à-vis its destruction under extreme circumstances and the role that religion ﬁlls in these situations. My ethnography concentrates on ZAKA, an Israeli rescue and recovery team that specializes in restoring
the dismembered corpses of terror victims. ZAKA (the Hebrew acronym for ‘identiﬁcation of disaster victims’) is a voluntary grassroots, all-male organization whose members are recruited almost entirely from fundamentalist Haredi (i.e. ultra-Orthodox) streams. These groups generally oppose modernity, shirk national duties, and sequester themselves from mainstream society (Stadler et al., 2005). As we shall see, the participation of Haredi men in ZAKA creates a unique dissonance between their community’s insular proclivities and ascetic practices, on the one hand, and the volunteer’s prominent interaction with society at large and their handling of impure corpses and injured victims, on the other. In this context, then, ultraOrthodoxy’s ascetic lifestyle and stringent rules governing the handling of corpses undergo a considerable transformation. Drawing on the ﬁndings of my ethnographic research, I will analyze the ways in which the organization’s volunteers describe and justify every phase of their work: receiving the call; riding to the location; treating the wounded and handling the dead; recomposing body parts and preparing the corpses for shipment to the Institute of Forensic Science and burial. A major facet of ZAKA members’ validation process is explaining how their activities are consonant
with traditional Jewish values. I will explain how volunteers couch the shattered body in religious expressions and metaphors. Selectively drawing on religious notions of the body and the sanctity of its wholeness, these death specialists have invented new practices as part of their response to terrorist attacks. In so doing, they have incorporated religious ideas into emergency and burial services that have already been appreciably secularized and medicalized, thereby reasserting at least a portion of the clergy’s erstwhile monopoly over death and the expired body. ZAKA members have essentially reaﬃrmed traditional Jewish notions of the body and its integrity by turning to concepts like heroism, piety, and martyrdom and by initiating a sophisticated public discourse on ‘corpse symbolism.’ As part of this process, the volunteers have crafted a taboo narrative of desecration and transgression that challenges both Haredi and modern assumptions concerning the body. In other words, they have exposed their fellow Haredis and the greater public to new conceptions of the body and innovative models of piety. Before delving into this topic, I would like to set the backdrop with an aperçu of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel.