Dying for a Cause—alone?

After September 11, 2001, dying for a cause became indelibly associated with suicide attacks, at least in North America and Europe. Another kind of politically motivated suicide doesn’t intend to kill others or cause material damage—self-immolation.

Since 1963, several hundred, perhaps as many as 3,000, individuals have sacrificed their lives in this kind of protest. They include Vietnamese Buddhists, South Korean leftists, Indian students, Chinese adherents of Falun Gong, and Kurdish nationalists in Western Europe. Protest by self-immolation provides another perspective on suicide attacks. The comparison undermines some common explanations for suicide attacks, like organizational indoctrination or heavenly rewards.

Self-immolation is also important in its own right. It takes us to places sociologists in the West rarely consider, and it also poses the theoretical puzzle of why it makes sense to die without inflicting any tangible cost on the opponent.

further reading online

  • In 1965, Norman Morrison, a Quaker from Baltimore, set himself on fire outside Robert McNamara’s office to protest the Vietnam War. In North Vietnam, Morrison become a folk hero, immortalized in the famous poem, Emily, my child, by Vietnamese Poet Tố Hữu. A street in Hanoi was named after Morrison and a stamp bearing his image was released.
  • Last year, nearly 100 cases of self-immolation were recorded in Herat, Afghanistan. Most cases of self-immolation are women responding to family problems such as abusive husbands and poverty. International women’s rights group Medica Mondiale estimates that 85% of these women die because shame prevents them being taken to hospitals for prompt medical treatment.