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Can suicide be a way of political resistance? I am especially interested in the political situation at the West Bank, so when you answer in this context, please....

December 22, 2006

Response from Andrew N. Carpenter on December 28, 2006

People who commit suicide can surely do so with the intention of provoking political change, including resisting tyranny or injustice. Likewise, those affected by the suicide of others can surely be provoked to political action by that act, including action that serves to fight tyranny or injustice.

However, this seems to me a perilous strategy of political resistance, and not just because it involves death. I suspect that individual acts of suicide are difficult to structure effectively as political acts: because suicide often baffles those affected the most by them, the odds of any particular suicide having the intended effect look to be rather low. The consequences of acts of mass suicide also seem difficult to predict, in part because media and governments will surely subject those acts to interpretive "spin" that will inevitably serve coroporate or governmental interests rather than those of the reistance group.

In sum, death in general and suicide in particular strike me as such culturally complex and anxiety-provoking events that the very cultural significance that makes suicide seem like an ultimate political act also makes it extremely hard to predict or shape the political reaction to that act. This seems all the more true for in extremely complicated and "messy" social and political environments like the West Bank.

I'll be interested to learn whether any other panelists have a more optimistic spin on the use of suicide as a means to resist injustice.

Response from Thomas Pogge on December 29, 2006

Suicide and highly risky acts of defiance can be, but rarely are, highly effective forms of political resistance. So one needs to analyze the conditions under which they are effective. The political suicide I remember most vividly is that of Jan Palach, a Czech student who burned himself to death with gasoline (in early 1969) to protest the Warsaw Pact invasion of his country. His suicide contributed greatly, I believe, to a deep and enduring change in attitude toward the Soviet Union on the part of young people esp. in Western Europe who, horrified by the brutality of the US war in Vietnam, had tended to view the Soviet Union as the more humane, less aggressive superpower. Many young people then did not really trust the established news media and vaguely suspected that the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia may indeed have preempted some sort of counterrevolutionary plot supported by the West. Jan Palach's suicide destroyed such excuses by focusing attention on the sentiments of young people in Czechoslovakia itself: on their passionate support of the Prague spring and on their desperation over its violent end. Jan Palach's suicide highlighted the moral character of the Soviet bloc and contributed substantially, I think, to its loss of moral credibility and eventual demise. Though Palach died long before the internet, his name scores more than 100,000 hits on google, more than Indira Ghandhi's, who died in a dramatic assassination 15 years after Palach and had been the Prime Minister of a vastly larger country for the preceding 19 years.

It is hard to think of other examples. Two Korean farmers come to mind who killed themselves in protest of increasing agricultural imports into Korea -- one in 2003 at a WTO meeting in Cancun, the other in 2005 at an APEC meeting in Busan. Certainly Lee Kyung-hae's death in Cancun was widely reported, but I do not think that it made much difference to WTO policies or even to those of the Korean government. Perhaps more successful were a number of suicides in China (end of 2003) in protest of forced expropriations that were often effected by corrupt local government agencies paying minimal compensation or none. These suicides and the anger they triggered caused the Chinese government drastically to limit the agencies authorized to order expropriations as well as the purposes by appeal to which such expropriations can be justified.

Can suicide be effective political resistance in the West Bank? I assume you have in mind an act of suicide in protest of the continued Israeli occupation and settlement policy. My sense is that, in the present context, such a suicide by a Palestinian would be drowned out in the media by all the other violence going on there. Such a suicide by an Israeli, by contrast, could have much greater impact by showing to the outside world and especially the many supporters of Israel that such support need not, and should not, condone continuation of the Israeli occupation and settlement policies. Small numbers of young Israelis have had much impact by refusing to serve in the Israeli army or by refusing to serve in the occupied territories.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me add that violent resistance to the occupation (bombings, suicide bombings, Qassam rockets) seems to me no less ineffective. Such resistance undermines Israeli opposition to the occupation and makes it easier for the Israeli government to avoid a negotiated settlement. Creative, well-organized and strictly non-violent resistance might have a chance to furnish an effective appeal to fair-minded Israelis and Western populations. But it's hard to see how such a resistance movement could evolve in the situation as it is now.


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