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.