BY MICHAEL BIGGS | DECEMBER 3, 2012
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.