In my childhood there seemed to be a lot of people prepared to burn themselves to death in public. Hardly a week seemed to go by without some obscure Buddhist monk dousing himself with petrol and striking a match. Sometimes TV cameras would record the event. Watching a person dressed in monk’s clothes calmly topple over, surrounded by flickering flames, sent shivers down my spine. ‘How could they do that?’ I wondered.
Precise figures don’t exist, but it’s believed around 100 self-immolating Buddhist monks and nuns committed public suicide in the mid-1960s and early 1970s in Vietnam and the US. According to this source there were 533 individual acts of self-immolation (some of which were non-fatal) between 1963 and 2002. Many Tibetans have burned themselves to death since 2009, in protests against Chinese rule. Were their deaths futile? China was still in charge of Tibet when I last checked. Doing away with yourself has a pretty poor record of bringing about political change.
Doing away with yourself has a pretty poor record of bringing about political change
Burning yourself in public caught on a bit in Europe, too – with just as much effect. Following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, putting an end to the brief rebellion against Soviet rule, there were at least a couple of self-immolations. In 1969 Jan Palach, a Czech student, set himself alight. Palach’s death immediately made world headlines. Not so an earlier self-immolation in protest against the same invasion. Ryszard Siwiec, a Pole, set himself on fire in September 1968, in a very public arena – a stadium with around 100,000 people, a mass celebration of harvest festival organised by the Polish communist authorities. Siwiec’s blaze of glory was captured on film – he’s still standing and waving his arms about – but was quickly suppressed, and he died a few days later. Siwiec wanted to draw attention to the anger felt by many Poles at the Czech invasion; instead he was for years written-off as an isolated madman.
Sometimes setting alight to yourself seems to bring about change – but only when the time is ripe. Palach’s protest certainly grabbed attention; but the Soviet tanks put paid to any change in Czechoslovakia for another 20 years. On the other hand, the so-called Arab Spring was sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street-seller who, on 17 December 2010, set himself on fire after lengthy harassment by officials. Unlike the examples of Palach or Siwiec, Bouazizi’s death might be said to have achieved something – it set the whole of the Middle East ablaze. Unfortunately it’s still burning.
But somewhere along the way the anger in the Middle East morphed from protest – individuals killing themselves in public – to warfare, with individuals killing themselves and taking as many others as possible with them. Like the suicide bomber in among the poor pharmacists in Lahore this week. What was the point of that? Did the bomber think he would achieve anything, other a brief mention in tomorrow’s chip paper?
Long ago the suicide bomber seemed to have a political purpose, other than simply causing random terror. On 13 March 1881 Ignaty Grinevitsky dropped a bomb at the feet of the Russian Tsar, Alexander II, as he stepped from his carriage outside the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. The bomb blew Alexander’s legs off, and he died later; Grinevitsky died too. Poor Grinevitsky achieved his immediate aim – Alexander died. But it took another 36 years for Tsarism to collapse – and when it did, it had little to do with Grinevitsky’s gesture.
The 3,000 suicide attacks carried out by pilots of the Tokkotai (or ‘special attack unit’), more familiarly known as kamikaze, by Japan in the Second World War, certainly had a practical purpose. The pilots who flew these planes were volunteers. They were not drawn from the regulars; trained fighters were deemed too valuable to be lost in a single mission. Instead they were recruited from university students or young men who were newly conscripted. They went to their deaths hoping they would also kill a lot of American sailors.
The same is true of the 1980s, during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. The largest bombings occurred here on 23 October 1983. First a truck was driven into a US Marine base in Lebanon; the driver detonated 2,000 pounds of explosives and killed himself along with 241 military personnel. Seconds later, another bomber hit the operations building of French paratroopers and killed 58 people. Suicide bombers aiming at taking a lot of identified ‘enemy’ with them – there seems a rational point to it, no matter how horrible.
But in the shift from suicide-as-individual-protest to suicide-as-mass-terror there is a deepening of the irrationality of the exercise, combined with no apparent increase in successful outcomes; there has been not one iota increase in achieving the sought-for change following the wave of Islam-inspired suicide bombings.
The 9/11 suicide bombing of the World Trade Center helped bring about the election of President Donald Trump. Great result guys!
The University of Chicago’s Project on Security & Terrorism records suicide attacks in 36 countries in the past three decades, causing the deaths of at least 30,000 people. Like it or not, of the 36 countries where suicide bombings have happened, only four (Finland, China, Bolivia, and Sri Lanka) have not involved groups with links to radical Islam. This will, eventually, end in many more tears, and it will be because the US has wedded itself – for better or worse – to the Middle East’s nastiest regime, the House of Saud. As Saïd Aburish wrote in his brilliant book The House of Saud: “There is no dignity in working for the House of Saud – just money and perhaps glamour. It comes down to empty, unwholesome men working for stupid, unwholesome men.”
In the 1970s the Saudi Arabian government began spending billions of dollars to promote Wahhabism, an extreme interpretation of Islam, around the world. It spent millions of dollars on PR in the US and elsewhere. Adam Curtis in his movie Bitter Lake explains how the suicide bomb has become the main weapon of a global jihad, funded and promoted by Saudi Arabia and other states in the form of Al Qaeda, now itself utterly fragmented and re-emerged as ISIS. The aiding and abetting of successive US federal administrations in propping up the corrupt cesspit that is Saudi Arabia is well documented by Curtis. Osama Bin Laden issued a fatwa in 1998 which declared all American citizens legitimate targets. On 7 August 1998 Al Qaeda carried out suicide bomb attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing 223 people.
I find it totally inexplicable that, among the countries Donald Trump barred US visas to, neither Saudi Arabia (which funds terrorism) nor Pakistan (where terrorists get their training) were on his list. Trump’s made many blunders so far, but this trumps them all.
We have moved far away from Buddhist monks burning themselves to protest against repression. We now live in a world where the suicide bomber is a daily phenomenon, so ubiquitous that, unless they hit a target that is familiarly comfortable to the Western media, they are likely to be overlooked. The Lahore suicide bombing this week was just another example of a blip that hardly registered.
Is there an aim to all this mayhem? The creation of a world in which women have no rights, adulterers are stoned, gays are tossed from tall buildings, and individual rights to self-expression are crushed? I’m not about to set myself on fire in protest against that – but give me a gun and I would shoot the bastard who tried to impose it on me and the country where I live.