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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The event that triggered the upheaval in Tunisia was a rare and especially gruesome form of protest. A 26-year-old unemployed college graduate set himself on fire and ultimately died. His example has apparently inspired an Egyptian, a Mauritanian and three Algerians to set themselves on fire in recent days.

Instances of self-immolation go back centuries, typically tied to religious disputes. But as political protest, it became prominent during the years of the Vietnam War.

Michael Biggs is a socialist at Oxford University in England. He's made a study of self-immolation and political protest, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

Professor MICHAEL BIGGS (Sociologist, Oxford University): Thanks.

SIEGEL: And of all the behaviors that might inspire others to do likewise, setting yourself on fire doesnt seem to be one of the more likely ones. How common is a chain reaction of self-immolations?

Prof. BIGGS: It is quite common. We've seen examples of this earlier with the Buddhist monks in South Vietnam, who eventually inspired even some Americans to set themselves on fire, including Norman Morrison outside the Pentagon. And there have been several other cases where one person in one country has set himself on fire and others have followed.

SIEGEL: In a list in Wikipedia, I saw India 1990s, an extraordinary run of instances of self-immolation.

Prof. BIGGS: Yes, that was the largest wave we've ever seen, with about perhaps over 200 people killing themselves or attempting to kill themselves, to protest against affirmative actions essentially for lower caste students.

SIEGEL: How do you understand the power of self-immolation as an act of protest?

Prof. BIGGS: Well, the power is the fact that somebody is willing to die and to kill themselves, and also to die in such a horrific and painful manner. Because of that, it gives a real credible signal that the injustice they're suffering should be taken seriously. I mean, talk is cheap. Anyone can have a protest and put up some placards and say: Things are bad. But if somebody is actually willing to kill themselves, then we take notice. And, of course, it's also - if you have a photograph, it's very spectacular.

SIEGEL: Of course we routinely speak of suicide bombings. But in those cases, the protest, or the act of war, or terrorism - what everyone calls it, is also homicide, it's taking other people's lives. In this case, the self-sacrifice is limited and it's purposefully limited.

Prof. BIGGS: Exactly. And then so it generates a wider sympathy. So even if you're not from that culture or that country, in some sense because it's only sacrificing yourself, other people can appreciate that more than suicide terrorism, where you really have to be sympathetic to think that it's justified to perhaps kill some civilians as well as yourself.

SIEGEL: From your research into people who have turned to self-immolation, do you find that they suffer from depression like people who try kill themselves for other reasons, or that they're typically mentally healthy? Whats most typical?

Prof. BIGGS: No, they tend to be quite different. They're mentally healthy just like perhaps suicide terrorists. I mean, they're people who believe absolutely in this cause. And they're not - there's quite a sharp distinction between people who commit a so ordinary suicide for depression or psychiatric problems, and people who sacrifice themselves for a greater cause.

SIEGEL: I was looking at the dates of some of the famous self-immolations in the United States during the Vietnam War era, and they run through the mid to late 1960s. The Vietnam War went on for several more years. It wasnt a successful form of protest, if the measure of success is ending the policy that you're trying to end.

Prof. BIGGS: No, but thats a very high bar to set any kind of protest action, to say that it has to have complete success. In the sense that Norman Morrison, the Quaker who'd set himself on fire outside the Pentagon...

SIEGEL: This was in November 1965.

Prof. BIGGS: Yes. I mean, he didnt - lots of Americans even in the anti-war movement distanced themselves from the cause. But his action did have a big impact on people all over the world. And his widow received many letters from people all over the world, touched by his action. And in fact, some people in Vietnam even killed themselves and cited him as an exemplar for them. So it had an international resonance even if it didnt work in the American domestic political system.

SIEGEL: Michael Biggs, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Prof. BIGGS: Thanks very much.

SIEGEL: Mr. Biggs is a sociologist at Oxford University. He has studied self-immolation as a form of political protest.

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