Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Shoot the Women First, by Eileen MacDonald

(hb; 1991: non-fiction)

From the inside flap:

“ ‘Shoot the women first’ is the advice given to police teams specializing in terrorist incidents. Why? Because women are more ruthless than men? To overcome an instinctive hesitation one might feel when faced with shooting a woman? Because women are intrinsically more dangerous than men?

“Intrigued by these questions, journalist Eileen MacDonald sought and obtained a series of interviews with women around the world from organizations committed to violence. Here, in their own words, are the reflections, rage, and regrets of these women: Kim Hyon Hui, who planted the bomb that destroyed Korean Air Flight 858 and all those on board; Leila Khaled, the mother and Intifada activist who blew up a plane in Syria; and Inge Viett, once of the most notorious members of the German Red Army Faction, who escaped from prison by sawing through the bars of her cell.

“In Shoot the Women First, these and other women – including members of the Irish Republican Army, the Italian Red Brigades, and the Basque separatist movement – tell their remarkable stories. They describe their memories of acts of extreme violence. They speak of the strengths and weaknesses of their male counterparts. They talk of motherhood and murder, and of the feelings a woman must suppress when she pulls a trigger or detonates a bomb.

“Women involved in violence have always provoked both revulsion and fascination. They are interlopers in a world assumed to be exclusively male. This powerful, challenging book explodes many of the myths and assumptions about women and violence, and offers bold new insights into an age-old, but seldom discussed phenomenon.”


A straight-forward, fascinating study of female terrorists around the world, Shoot the Women First shows many of the common elements of the women interviewed, while exposing their cultural and personality-oriented differences.

Many of the things these women (largely) had in common: the women tied their rebel activities to the feminist struggle; they got involved in these rebel groups because they wanted to, not because of a male counterpart (father, brother, lover, etc.); most of them still had strong maternal instincts; they opined that they were stronger and more committed to their causes than their male counterparts, who didn’t handle pain (under torture) as well as the women; women were more hurt by verbal insults (“slut,” etc.) of the police and soldiers, than the actual physical violence.

Also, while a few expressed regrets about their past violence, most of them regarded it as one of the exciting periods of their lives.

Kim Hyon Hui seems to be the exception to many of the above facts. Brainwashed since she was in the cradle, this South Korean woman was taught that Kim Il Sung, then-leader of South Korea, was a divine being. Any rebellion, born of natural personality, was subjugated by the society-enforced, dogmatic rituals and dictates of the country she was raised in. So when they told her to bomb Korean Air Flight 858 in November 1987, she didn’t even think to question it, or the fact that she’d be killing anybody. (At least this is what she says. Her handlers backed her up on this.)

One minor nit: author MacDonald gives Leila Khaled too much space. Khaled is clearly building up her role in her particular “struggle” -- author MacDonald notes this, yet portions of Khaled's chapter are repetitive, and occasionally boring.

Despite that minor nit, this is a great, disturbing, landmark read – at least for this reader. Check it out.

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