Where should we draw the line between protest and violence? Are forms of suicide acceptable means of protest? In short: how far should one be willing to go when protesting?
Let us begin at the least contentious act
of extreme protest, and work our way to the most shocking.
Hunger strike was considered a legitimate form of protest by Gandhi, and indeed he employed several hunger strikes during his time in prison. Although the idea that this action is non-violent is debatable, it remains one of the few forms of protest available to someone who has been imprisoned. The British authorities were anxious not to allow Gandhi to die while in jail, as it would reflect poorly upon them internationally, and create a martyr – and quite possibly a retaliatory uprising.
The goal of a hunger strike or any other
extreme act of protest is to draw attention to the cause – to get attention
from the media (and hence the world) for what is being protested. In this
respect, a hunger strike is an effective means of protest.
More extreme is self-immolation – the act of setting oneself on fire and burning to death as protest. This is almost as extreme as it gets. While in a hunger strike one is not committing suicide but endangering one’s life, in self-immolation one is trading in one’s own life for the hope of publicity to a cause. In the short term it works: news services do report these horrifying events. But it is questionable whether the cost of a human life is worth a brief dose of attention, especially when less extreme measures (such as public nudity) can bring even more attention.
Consider the following instances of
Norman Morrison burning himself to death outside the Pentagon in November 1965 to protest the Vietnam War. Roger Allen LaPorte doing the same one week later outside of the UN headquarters.
Jan Palach self-immolating as protest
against the Soviet invasion of
Sándor Bauer protesting the Communist regime in
Márton Moyses self-immolating in a protest against Communist dictatorship in
And finally, Malachi Ritscher, a
How many of these have you heard of? How many do you remember? Do you believe that these people helped their cause? Could they have done more to help their cause if instead of committing an act of suicide-as-protest they had contributed to their cause in other ways?
The trouble with direct acts of suicide as protest is that while it is certainly shocking, it is not necessarily effective: people tend to see anyone willing to commit suicide in this way as mentally unbalanced, thus undercutting any value in bringing attention to the cause being pursued.
And if self-immolation is of questionable
value as an act of protest, what of suicide bombings, and other forms of
protest that involve not only suicide but murder? Here, the effectiveness of the action is not just reduced, it has become counter-productive: while committing murder certainly increases the
news-worthiness of your protest (suicide bombings make the news tickers almost
every day), it decreases any sympathy people may have for your cause.
Since the goal of extreme acts of protest is to draw attention to your cause, and it is desired that this attention bring more people into support of your position, neither self-immolation nor suicide bombing can be viewed as wise courses of action, although suicide bombing is certainly far worse: not only do you damage your cause, you entrench the culture of those you murder into deeper opposition, rendering it utterly counter-productive.
Neither murder nor suicide (with the
possible exception of the threat of suicide from hunger strike while imprisoned)
are effective forms of protest. Since they are not effective, they should never