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Why self-immolation is used as a form of protest


Shortly before setting himself on fire outside Israel's embassy here in Washington, D.C., a member of the U.S. Air Force wrote on social media that he would, quote, "no longer be complicit in genocide." He was apparently referring to U.S. support for Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza. He was far from the first person to set himself on fire as a form of protest, and Michael Biggs studies people who have. He is a sociologist at Oxford University in the U.K. Welcome to the program, sir.

MICHAEL BIGGS: Good morning.

INSKEEP: I should state the obvious. We're talking here about suicide, which also has a stated political purpose. So do you see self-immolation as any different from other cases where people commit some harm to themselves or others?

BIGGS: It is. It is very different because in this case, people are acting on behalf - the individuals are acting on behalf of a political cause. And so in most cases, there is a no clear previous psychological instability. And so often it's very normal people, very - people who are committed to a political cause, who take the most dramatic step they can imagine to send a communication about the importance of that cause.

INSKEEP: I think you're telling me you do not necessarily see a mental health crisis here. You see someone who is making a very deliberate political statement.

BIGGS: Yes. I mean, of course, it varies depending on the case, but - and, of course, the actual interpretation of the action depends on how sympathetic you are. If you're very sympathetic to the person's cause, then you'll say this person is a great martyr for the cause and a hero. If you're unsympathetic, you'll say he was just or she was just mentally ill.

INSKEEP: You know, when I heard about this incident, I immediately thought about a Buddhist monk who set himself on fire in Vietnam in 1963 to protest a U.S.-led government in Vietnam. This is before I was born, but I read about it. And there's something about this particular kind of act that sticks in the mind. Is that often the case?

BIGGS: Yes. And of course, that's why we're having this conversation today, is precisely because it's so dramatic, and so - such a terrible action that it takes public attention. And that's the whole point of it.

INSKEEP: Wasn't the Arab Spring sparked off by an act of self-immolation?

BIGGS: Yes, yes, exactly. In Tunisia, Bouazizi set himself on fire, although it's not clear that he was actually - had a broader political motive. May have been just an act of frustration about his particular treatment by the police. But that led, of course, to the revolt in Tunisia and across the Arab Spring.

INSKEEP: Oh, you underline a big insight there, I think, which is true of many protests, many public events. It's not merely what the person does, it is how people interpret it afterward and make a meaning out of it.

BIGGS: Absolutely. Yes. That is crucial. Yes. Although of course the individual himself can - or herself can - change that, by the way that they, the note that they leave or the particular location they choose for the action as well.

INSKEEP: So how would you fit Sunday's action when this U.S. Air Force airman stood outside the Israeli embassy and set himself on fire, was pronounced dead some hours later on Sunday - how would you fit that action into this broader history of self-immolation?

BIGGS: Well, the clearest parallel would be Norman Morrison in 1965, who was a Quaker, and he set himself on fire outside the Pentagon to protest against the war in Vietnam. And that had a comparable impact on the - in the news at the time. And obviously he was copying, self-consciously echoing the actions of Buddhist monks.

INSKEEP: Is it common that this becomes a major event, a major political event, that may affect the debate for a long time after the incident?

BIGGS: It has a bigger impact in countries outside the West, in countries like South Korea, Vietnam, Tibet and India.

INSKEEP: Why would that be?

BIGGS: In America, it's often seen as - or in Western countries, it's often seen as too extreme because of the way we react to the method of dying by burning. And also in a democracy, we just see it as there are other ways of making your voice heard.

INSKEEP: Oh, very interesting. Michael Biggs of Oxford University in the U.K. - thanks very much for your insights this morning. Really appreciate it.

BIGGS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And I want to note, if you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, you may call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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