Ultimate Sacrifice

What's the difference between self-immolators and suicide bombers?


The Western world may be transfixed by the all-too-familiar images of smoldering cars and bloodied children -- the work of suicide bombers waging jihad -- but there is another form of deadly protest that has made a resurgence in recent years. Not only did Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi's fiery suicide ignite the region and inspire subsequent self-immolations in Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco, but a growing number of Tibetans have also set themselves alight to protest Chinese rule in Tibetan regions. Twenty-eight Tibetans set themselves ablaze last month, bringing the total to 90 since 2009. Wherever it occurs, suicide protest poses a puzzle: why do people kill themselves for a collective political cause, without harming others?

The Western world may be transfixed by the all-too-familiar images of smoldering cars and bloodied children — the work of suicide bombers waging jihad — but there is another form of deadly protest that has made a resurgence in recent years. Not only did Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s fiery suicide ignite the region and inspire subsequent self-immolations in Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco, but a growing number of Tibetans have also set themselves alight to protest Chinese rule in Tibetan regions. Twenty-eight Tibetans set themselves ablaze last month, bringing the total to 90 since 2009. Wherever it occurs, suicide protest poses a puzzle: why do people kill themselves for a collective political cause, without harming others?

It is the last point — no harm to others — that is especially puzzling. The suicide attack, however morally repugnant, has an obvious logic. Call this a sanguinary logic, because it maximizes bloodshed. In an ordinary guerilla or terrorist attack, the perpetrator is interested in escaping death or capture if possible. With no such constraint, a suicide attack can inflict far greater casualties on the enemy. Suicide attacks are also attractive for insurgent organizations because detonation removes the possibility that the perpetrator will be captured and interrogated. Suicide bombings can sow fear in civilian populations, thwart economic development, repulse non-governmental organizations, and provoke military retaliation.

Suicide protest does not achieve these ends; its logic is communicative rather than sanguinary. To quote Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta, "Martyrdom is as strong a signal of the strength of a belief as one can get: only those who hold their beliefs very dear can contemplate making the ultimate sacrifice of dying for a cause." Choosing a painful means of death — burning, most obviously — amplifies that signal still more. The communication, moreover, can be directed toward various audiences. Sometimes it is a disinterested and faraway public, and the self-immolator hopes to attract the public’s attention and win its sympathy. At other times the self-immolator addresses his or her own group, hoping to enhance the group’s commitment to the cause.

Today’s suicide bombers are part of a lineage that goes back to Lebanon in the early 1980s. The Israeli invasion of the country spawned a kaleidoscopic insurgency — partly secular and partly linked to the Iranian Revolution — that launched suicide attacks against Israeli troops and various other targets, including the Iraqi Embassy, plus multinational forces attempting to stabilize the chaotic aftermath of occupation. In the most dramatic instance, a single truck bomb killed 241 American servicemen in 1983, demonstrating to the world the devastating combination of a bomb, a vehicle, and a militant willing to die.

Suicide protest has a longer lineage that stretches back to South Vietnam in the early 1960s, when the U.S.-backed government of President Ngo Dinh Diem favored the country’s Catholic minority. In 1963, the government banned Buddhist flags, leading to a violent clash in which security forces shot demonstrators. As Buddhist monks campaigned against religious discrimination, an elderly monk named Thich Quang Duc offered "to make a donation to the struggle," subsequently setting himself on fire in front of American reporters. The photograph of him sitting cross-legged, enveloped in flames, became famous around the world. His death sparked massive demonstrations in Vietnam and spurred further self-immolations. Diem’s regime was overthrown five months after Quang Duc’s death, in a coup tacitly supported by the United States. "We cannot stand any more burnings," explained then-U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk.

The immolations in South Vietnam provided a spectacular demonstration of communicative power. Instances of suicide protest were not unknown in previous decades, but they had not involved burning. After 1963, the global rate of suicide protest increased more than tenfold, and fire became the most common means of death by far. It is surely no coincidence that the meaning of the word "immolation" has shifted. The original definition — and etymological derivation — is sacrifice, but the word is now often equated with incineration. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, which defined immolation without reference to fire in 1983, now reads, "suicide, usually by burning oneself in a public place."

Since the early 1980s, suicide bombing has been taken up largely by Muslim insurgent and terrorist groups. The major exception was the Tamil Tigers, drawn from a Hindu population in Sri Lanka. Suicide protest, by contrast, has been adopted across many different cultures.  The tactic has also been applied to a wide variety of causes — be it leftist students and workers in South Korea protesting against U.S.-backed dictatorship, Lithuanians demanding independence from the Soviet Union, or Falun Gong practitioners protesting against persecution in China. Before 2010, suicide protest was almost entirely absent from Muslim countries, aside from Turkey. That changed, however, with the death of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia.

But as suicide protest and suicide bombing have spread, they have not conjoined. The tactics are not used together for the same cause, with one significant exception. In the late 1990s, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) mounted a few suicide attacks within Turkey, while dozens of imprisoned PKK members burned themselves to death at the end of a hunger strike. But suicide by inmates does not have quite the same character as suicide protest outside prison; life in captivity is less to lose. After the PKK’s leader was captured in 1999, several supporters in European cities set themselves on fire to protest against the Greek government’s role in his seizure. By that stage, however, the PKK was making peace overtures to the Turkish government.

While suicide protest has spread widely in the last half century, it has not taken root in Western democracies. When it occurs, it is most often imported by immigrants like Turkish Kurds. There are, however, some indigenous instances, with the best-known being Norman Morrison, an American Quaker, setting himself on fire outside the Pentagon in 1965. He was protesting against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, but his action evoked little positive response from Americans — not even from anti-war campaigners. Paradoxically, his action gained far greater appreciation in Vietnam, South and North. The latter featured Morrison in poetry and on postage stamps.

The absence of suicide protest in Western democracies can partly be explained by democracy itself. Where political institutions function through compromise and bargaining, the communicative logic of suicide protest is less compelling. In these societies, citizens can make their voices heard by voting or demonstrating. Signaling the strength of one’s belief matters, of course: clicking on a webpage to send a rote email to your senator’s office will have less of an effect than taking the time to call. But sacrificing one’s own life is perceived as too extreme, suggesting unbalanced fanaticism if not mental illness.

Still, democracy is not the whole explanation. In fact, the largest wave of suicide protest in history occurred in democratic India. In 1990, over 100 upper-caste students set themselves alight, swallowed poison, or hanged themselves to protest against the expansion of quotas for lower castes in universities and government employment. Clearly, religious traditions as well as political systems are important in explaining why suicide protest occurs in some places more than others. This leads us from historical context to individual motivation.

Interpreting the motivations of individuals is never easy, especially when the action is so alien. Information on the triggers for suicide attacks is in high demand, but evidence is meager. In the current hotspots of suicide bombing, Afghanistan and Iraq, the perpetrators do not state their reasons or even declare their names. And identification is often beyond the capacity of local police, who lack forensic expertise and population records. In these campaigns, the main information comes from would-be suicide bombers who decide to surrender or, less commonly, whose explosives fail to detonate. Those captured in Afghanistan are often youths who claim to have been duped or coerced by the Taliban. The problem is that those who surrender are not representative of suicide bombers.

In some suicide bombing campaigns, attackers have recorded video for public broadcast. Sana’a Mehaidli, a member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party who targeted an Israeli convoy in Lebanon in 1985, made the first known videotape, and Palestinian militants subsequently adopted the approach. But the extent to which videos express the individual’s own views is not always clear. Would-be Palestinian suicide bombers interviewed by psychologist Ariel Merari report that their messages were scripted by their handlers. Recording a video also serves a very different function: in making an irrevocable commitment to die, the individual strengthens his will to carry out the attack.

Videos recorded by the Britons who blew themselves up in a 2005 attack on London’s transportation network offer some insight into the mindset of suicide bombers, since they operated on their own and their testimony was not scripted. Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer both addressed the enemy. "What you have witnessed now is only the beginning of a string of attacks that will continue and become stronger until you pull your forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq," Tanweer threatened. Interestingly, they did not urge Muslims, whether in Britain or all over the world, to take up the cause. Khan just briefly asked for prayers "to Allah almighty to accept the work from me and my brothers and enter us into gardens of paradise." In this way, the videos accentuated the sanguinary logic of the attacks: inflicting harm on the enemy.

Suicide protesters do not have to leave an elaborate message in order to communicate. In some cases, the cause is expressed in slogans shouted within seconds of the fatal act. The Tibetans who have set themselves on fire have called for autonomy from China or the return of the Dalai Lama, who has been living in exile since 1959. Some have brandished objects that Chinese authorities prohibit, such as a photograph of the Dalai Lama or the flag of Tibet. In other cases, the spatial or temporal context is sufficient. When a monk set himself alight on March 10 of this year, the symbolism was apparent to his intended audience: the Tibetan uprising began on that day in 1959.

Written or recorded testimonies have also been brought out from China, either smuggled across the Himalayas or surreptitiously uploaded. These testimonies exhort Tibetans to preserve their identity and maintain unity. The cousins Choephak Kyab and Sonam, who set themselves alight on April 19, 2012, in China’s Sichuan province, addressed the "Tibetan nation." "Educate yourself," they urged, "and choose the right direction, show loyalty and affection for your people, diligently preserve your culture and do not lose your dignity, remain united as one." Lama Sobha, a spiritual leader who set himself on fire on Jan. 8, left a tape recording stowed away in his robes. "You must unite and work together to build a strong and prosperous Tibetan nation in the future," he reflected. "Give love and education to the children, who should study hard to master all the traditional fields of study. The elders should carry out spiritual practice as well as maintain and protect Tibetan language and culture."

The enduring demand for Tibetan political autonomy swelled in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, when demonstrations and riots erupted against Chinese authorities and sometimes also targeted Han Chinese who had migrated to Tibetan areas. The state reacted by ratcheting up repression and subjecting monasteries to "re-education" campaigns that involved searches, arrests, beatings, and, in some cases, physical occupation of the buildings by security forces. This repression has continued up to the present, and, indeed, escalates after every immolation. The assault on monasteries, the repository of culture as well as religion, threatens Tibetan identity, as does the continuing influx of Han migrants.

In this context, suicide protest communicates the importance of preserving Tibetan identity. The willingness of some people to kill themselves — in such a painful manner — powerfully reinforces the message. The subtext is clear: "If I make this ultimate sacrifice, then you should be able to make smaller sacrifices for the same cause." The same communicative logic is found in many other episodes of suicide protest. Back in 1963, Quang Duc’s written testament called on "the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism."

Suicide protest is used not only to exhort one’s fellows to greater efforts on behalf of a cause, but also to attract wider attention and sympathy. Certainly the Tibetan immolations have received sympathetic media coverage in the West, where the cause already had considerable public support. But soliciting the sympathy of outsiders has rarely appeared as an explicit motivation. An exception is Jamphel Yeshi, a Tibetan exile in India who killed himself on March 26 during a visit by then-Chinese President Hu Jintao. He addressed not only his "fellow Tibetans" but also a broader audience. "The fact that Tibetan people are setting themselves on fire in this 21st century is to let the world know about their suffering, and to tell the world about the denial of basic human rights," he wrote.

Beyond the motivations expressed explicitly or implicitly by suicide protesters, some commentators suspect hidden motives. Ordinarily people commit suicide because of mental illness or personal disappointments. Might these also motivate suicide attacks or suicide protest? One source of confusion is the conflation of suicide protest with suicide by burning, as both are often called "self-immolation." Another is that some individuals kill themselves in public for a personal grievance rather than a collective cause. The circumstances surrounding Bouazizi’s suicide suggest an individual grievance against particular officials, although his action then became a symbol for millions of Tunisians of their collective discontent with the political system. Bouazizi’s action inspired cases of suicide protest in the strict sense — for a collective cause — in North Africa, and it also spurred some people intent on suicide for ordinary personal reasons to choose fire over some other method of death. The same thing happened after 1963. The spectacular immolations in South Vietnam led to an increase in burning as a method of suicide in the West.

Restricting our attention to acts committed for a collective cause, is there evidence for psychopathology? Evidence is naturally scarce. When Ariel Merari and his colleagues subjected 15 suicide attackers captured in Israel to extensive psychometric tests, they diagnosed minor suicidal tendencies in a large minority of the prisoners and found half to be depressed. The problem, once again, is extrapolating these results to the population of suicide attackers. Most of Merari’s sample surrendered to Israeli authorities instead of triggering a bomb (only four were captured due to technical failure). In other words, they were unwilling to die for a cause.

One similar study has been carried out for suicide protest. Indian psychiatrists interviewed and assessed 22 individuals who lit themselves on fire or swallowed poison to protest against affirmative action in 1990. They all required hospitalization and some died after the study, meaning that they are fairly representative of the general population of suicide protesters. Ultimately, the researchers found that only one of the subjects met the criteria for manifest psychopathology. The battery of tests indicated that the subjects scored high on hostility to others and had a strong sense of control over their own fate. This profile diverges from the normal psychological profile for self-harming patients, which is characterized by lack of self-control. Depression was no more pronounced in the subjects than in the general population.

Religion may shed more light than psychology on individual motivations — and help explain variations across cultures. In the case of suicide attacks, Islam promises heavenly rewards to the jihadist who dies in battle. Tanweer Khan, for example, expressed his hope to enter paradise. The most lethal groups behind suicide attacks, such as al Qaeda and the Taliban, are explicitly Islamist. It should be remembered, though, that some suicide attackers from Muslim countries are not religiously devout. Sana’a Mehaidli, for instance, belonged to a purely secular organization. Outside the Islamic world, the Tamil Tigers were also secular nationalists.

While suicide protest has spread widely, it is more common in countries shaped by Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions. Buddhism does not promise posthumous rewards for martyrdom; suicide protest cannot accelerate one’s journey toward enlightenment or elevate the next incarnation. But stories of the Buddha’s past lives include instances of self-sacrifice. The Lotus Sutra, or scripture, in the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism describes the spiritual leader killing himself to feed a famished tiger who is on the verge of eating her cubs. Mahayana Buddhism, originating in China, predominates in Tibet and Vietnam. Lama Sobha cited this Lotus Sutra in his final message.

The Mahayana tradition also has many accounts of monks who killed themselves publicly — often but not always by fire — to manifest their transcendence of physical existence, exemplify the power of Buddhist practice, or elicit benefits for their monastic community. But almost all these acts lacked any element of protest, insofar as accounts of the deaths can be interpreted in a modern framework. To put it crudely, they were done for religious rather than political reasons. Such deaths continued into the early 20th century in China and Vietnam. Quang Duc certainly knew of this monastic tradition, and translated it to the domain of politics.

While religion can provide exemplars to inspire sacrifice, suicide protesters rarely view their death as having supernatural efficacy. Even religiously devout individuals, in explaining their action, refer primarily to its communicative efficacy in this world. As always, there are exceptions. Lama Sobha’s testimony, for example, does hint at supernatural efficacy. "I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering, and to lead them … to the Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light," he declared. "My offering of light is for all living beings, even as insignificant as lice and nits, to dispel their pain and to guide them to the state of enlightenment."

Whether aimed at this world or the next, acts of suicide protest can inspire emulation by others. As a result, suicide protest often comes in waves. Suicide attacks, too, usually cluster together, but this can be partly explained by the deliberate nature of campaigns by terrorist or insurgent groups. When an act of suicide protest attracts positive attention, others can envisage the possibility of their own success. Viewed instrumentally, however, this form of communication should be subject to diminishing marginal returns. The first immolation for a particular cause sends a powerful signal about the intensity of conviction. A second or third confirms that the first was not the idiosyncratic action of a peculiar or unbalanced individual. But the thirteenth or fourteenth action surely makes a lesser contribution. Conversely, though, previous sacrifices make the cause more precious. Thus, Lama Sobha expressed gratitude to "other Tibetan heroes, who have sacrificed their lives for Tibet" and explained that he was sacrificing his body, in part, "to stand in solidarity with them in flesh and blood." The obligation to the dead increases with their number.

So far, the recent wave of Tibetan immolations has not yielded any tangible political success. Repression has only increased in the Tibetan areas of China, and expressions of sympathy from the majority Han population within China are rare. Western public opinion, which already favored the Tibetan cause, has no means of exercising leverage over China. But it is too soon to assess the consequences of these immolations. Gauging their effect on Tibetans within China is effectively impossible given the degree of repression.

What we can predict is that suicide protest will continue. Its communicative logic is no less potent than the suicide attack’s sanguinary logic — and it is more readily carried out. A suicide bombing requires organization, coordination, and technical skills to prepare explosives. In conflict zones like Afghanistan, the attacker also needs assistance to reach what are often fortified targets. Suicide protest does not require organization. There is no defense against the practice, short of the total suppression of information. Where information about suicide protest can be suppressed completely, there is hardly any reason to perform it. In today’s world, the totalitarian control formerly exercised by the Soviet Union or Maoist China is no longer feasible, at least for a country participating in the global economy. For evidence, look no further than China’s inability to prevent us from reading about — and in some cases even watching — the immolations in Tibet.

Michael Biggs is a sociologist at the University of Oxford, where he studies social movements and collective protest. His research on suicide protest appears in Making Sense of Suicide Missions (Oxford University Press) and a recent working paper.

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