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Understanding mad bombers

In 1957, New York police finally solved a 16-year string of seemingly random bombings that had plagued the city. George Metesky, or the "mad bomber" as he was known, attracted a lot of attention. He even was interviewed on television about his crimes. People were curious to glimpse into the mind of someone who could hurt people so indiscriminately and with so little remorse.

That same sort of curiosity surrounds the recent capture of Sajida Mubarak al-Rishawi, a 35-year-old Iraqi woman who admits she was one of the suicide bombers who attacked hotels in Jordan last week but that her bomb malfunctioned. Her confession was televised as well. She calmly described the way she tried to blow herself up, and how her husband had calmly pushed her out of the hotel so he could detonate his own bomb before attracting attention.

Back in 1957, a judge sent Metesky to a state mental institution because he said the "mad bomber" was hopelessly insane and unable to stand trial. Metesky remained there until he was released in 1973.

But if a man who set bombs randomly around a city was considered mentally incompetent, what about a person who sets a bomb deliberately to commit suicide while killing others as well? No one is considering al-Rishawi insane, perhaps because there are so many just like her, willing to do the same thing.

That is the troubling aspect of the war against terrorism. To so many of the terrorists, their cause takes on a level of importance that defies any rational understanding. Al-Rishawi had motives. Apparently, three of her brothers had been killed by American forces in Iraq, according to Associated Press accounts. At least one of those was a known al-Qaida member. Revenge may have spurred her, but the woman who spoke on television seemed not to possess such deep emotions.

The Associated Press quoted a relative of three people killed by those blasts as wondering these same things. "I sat there watching and couldn't understand how she could be speaking so coldly," he said. "What are these people made of?"

What, indeed.

Metesky had his motives. He felt he had been wronged by Consolidated Edison, his former employer. The bombs he set were meant to somehow get back at the utility company.

Both criminals share a flawed sense of logic. And yet both succeeded very well in spreading panic and drawing attention to their cause.

For coalition forces to succeed in Iraq, the United States must find a way to impose the rational logic of a government that guarantees liberties and rights to all against the illogical desire for self-destruction in the name of a cause.

As al-Rishawi — and Metesky many years before her — have shown, that is a tall order.