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.