The politics of suicide


Memorial at tree where Dimitris Christoulas shot himselfIt's happened again. On 27 April a suicide bomber in Damascus stood in close proximity to both a school and a mosque, and detonated the explosives in his belt. At least nine people died and 30 were injured.

Philosophers have always had a lot to say about what might be called private suicide. While Nietzsche remarked ironically that the thought of suicide can get one through many a long night, Wittgenstein considered that suicide was the pivot on which every ethical system turns, because it is life's central issue. Albert Camus agreed that suicide was the one serious philosophical problem in that it poses the question as to whether life is worth living; he went on to suggest that suicide is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art.

Suicide is as individual as the person who attempts it: some people simply reach a depth of despair so great that they relocate to another space where they cannot be reached. The threat of suicide can also be coercive: many people make attempts, but never complete the act, often because the so-called cry for help has been answered.

And then there is suicide as public protest: the newspapers of my youth featured pictures of Buddhist monks self-immolating in Vietnam more often than I care to recall.

I am very muddled on the subject of suicide, both private and public. Like many people, I have tended to think suicide bombers are either madmen or irredeemable religious fanatics buoyed by enticing visions of Paradise. Not so. Flinders University maintains a Suicide Terrorism Database, and has kept records since 1981, yet there is no discernible pattern, except that most such suicides are completed by young men.

Religion may play a part, but politics, a sense of humiliation, altruism and a desire for revenge are more important. Also a sense of desperation and impotence, pride, anger and a local tradition of resistance. Such suicides are coercive and strategic, a bizarre exercise in public relations in an attempt to deal with injustice.

Again there are the individual examples. What are we to make of the suicide of Dimitris Christoulas? On 4 April this 77-year-old retired pharmacist took up his position near a tree in Athens' busy Syntagma Square, near the metro station; the Parliament building is clearly visible across the street. At 9am, when crowds of people were on their way to work and to the shops, he took out a handgun and shot himself in the head.

He was an activist who had often attended the protests of the Greek Indignants, and his only child, a daughter, said his death was consistent with the way he had lived. He'd left a Can't pay, Won't pay notice outside his flat, and said in his suicide note that he could not survive further cuts to his pension; thus he was ending his life before he had to start scouring the garbage skips, a practice now common among the poor of Greece's cities.

One witness maintains that Christoulas said he was not committing suicide, but was being killed by politicians. His angry note added that he was sure the youth of the country would one day rise up in armed revolt and go on to hang the traitors in Syntagma Square. He'd have taken up arms himself, he had written, but he was too old.

Perhaps Christoulas' death was both a private solution to his anger and despair, prepared within the silence of the heart, and a public gesture that had the drama of a posed work of art. He killed no one but himself, and like a true Greek exercised his rights as he saw them: he had no time for formal religion, and took his life within a culture that has always stigmatised suicide. At the same time his death could hardly have been more public.

While thousands attended Christoulas' civil funeral, politicians reacted with suitable contrition. George Karatzaferis, leader of LAOS, went so far as to say that 'we have all pulled the trigger.' He may well be right. 


Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website. 

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, suicide, suicide bombers, Greece



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Existing comments

This is a heart-wrenching subject - suicide. We can speculate on what drives a person to take their own life. I would speculate that a place is reached where nothing can touch the deepest of pain and dis-connectedness. Perhaps inflicting pain on family members and other loved ones, and the guilt that would be associated with that, is not consciously acknowledged (or even known). It's always a tragedy - for God, for the person involved and those who loved them, and for those who didn't know them. Gillian, your last paragraph was telling - about the politicians reacting with 'suitable' contrition. I think of the high suicide rate of young Aboriginal people in a region of the Kimberley in Western Australia. It's reached the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald but has it reached the hearts of politicians who continue to belittle each other, to talk about the economy, to talk about the carbon tax, to not actually take a minute to shut their mouths in mourning.
Pam | 02 May 2012

You must have noticed that Tibetan monks and nuns have taken to burning themselves up, just as Thai Buddhists did to protest US terrorism. But will the Chinese see that they strike the match? Your issues are always relevant. Thank you.
Charlotte Painter | 02 May 2012

Suicide bombers are murderers, Gillian, usually in the name of god.
Michelle Goldsmith | 02 May 2012

I wouldnt have called "suicide" politics, but a great tragedy. A tragedy that a man who reached such an age felt that there was no further place to go than to end it all. A tragedy that society has reached a place of displacement, because this is what this man found himself in. A tragedy because societies and their ideal of youth and money, and haves are forgetting the have nots. A tragedy that a man who worked could no longer see a way to sustain himself, and the society he lived him didnt have a place for him so that he was safe. The tragedy of this life are manifold. However, I would say that suicide per se, means a total loss of sense of self and loss of own value. Suicide is sense that love does not exist and absence of all that love means in order to overcome and continue. An absence of metaphysical and an embracing of total existential. Indeed, all suicide is a rejection of that mystery called "life" but before that place is reached much hurt and anger and disappointment has been battled and the battle lost and we "all" contribute to any suicide.
Anne Lastman | 02 May 2012

Christoulas pulled the trigger, no one else. His last act was anti-life. This is very, very sad. Our fault was, and is, to not have a world where all freely choose life.
Christopher Howard | 02 May 2012

Gillian, thank you. The World Health Organisation states 90% of global suicides are deaths of the seriously mentally ill (SMI). My daughter suffered intractable schizophrenia for twenty years; paranoia increased, psychotic crises more frequent, she reached despair. There was no other choice but to die, violently and alone. Australia has 650,000 SMI. Many die by PREVEVENTABLE suicide. Schizophrenia, bipolar and severe affective disorders are incurable but with care,many can live normal lives. Their necessities: frequent, regular psychotherapy; safe, simple housing; help with the social aspects of life, particularly employment; medication as necessary. Fewer than 40% receive specialised treatment; about 50,000 are homeless; all who do receive treatment are medicated, whether needed or not. A tiny minority receive social help or employment training. Publishe suicide rates are fiction; all states have under-enumerated them, even the Australian Bureau of Statistics calculates 2010 suicide rates using the 2001 population; lower suicide rates, mean all governments' mental health underfunding appears less destructive. Almost all severely physically ill people expect, and receive, top care. The majority of SMI, 60%, receive no specialised care and have a life expectancy of some 55 years. All governments are culpable...knowingly causing preventable deaths.
Caroline Storm | 02 May 2012

Makes me remember.
A historical event did not express itself.
It's meaning was always interpreted by man.
This moment, in the morning of 5th June 1989, would be a permanent historical symbol.

He, later,? vanished without a trace.
Even his name was not recognised.
For millions of television audiences from around the world,it was showing a crystal-clear message-
that’s consciousness and courage of human which was challenging a cruel state machine.

Myra | 02 May 2012

Ms Bouras is muddled about suicide. I, and thousands of others, are not at all muddled. I am nearing the end of my life, I am happy, but I know my life will not get better, and I don't want to be in pain, or incompetent, or dependent, so I will commit suicide and enter the Big Sleep in my own good time.
Peter Shaw | 02 May 2012

This man was an activist and - as his daughter pointed out - his death was consistent with the way he had lived. An angry man - his dramatic suicide was the ultimate protest. As Gillian said "like a true Greek he exercised his rights as he saw them".
For me although he killed nobody but himself, his act was akin to those committed by suicide bombers - "coercive and strategic, a bizarre exercise in public relations in an attempt to deal with injustice".

di | 02 May 2012

A heartfelt piece of writing, as are most of the comments. However on a philosophical note I would challenge Albert Camus in his belief that suicide can sometimes be a "great work of art". It may at first seem as such as in the case of Christoulas, but I believe this still weighs to the negative despite him scoring a political point. I believe a truly great work of art can only be born out a culture of life. There is surely great sancity in life as it seems to reign supreme over death. It has taken some billions of years for life, fragile yet tenacious, to evolve to our present. This seems nothing short of miraculous, that we can now look back at the universe which was once nothing and say "Universe here I am". To desire, or conspire to life's negation is surely a muddled sickness from which could provoke no masterpieces as truly great and creative as that of life itself. My heart never the less goes out to those who feel they must end their life as the only solution to their tragic suffering and real pain. This is indeed a mystery as is life.
John Whitehead | 03 May 2012

Makes me remember The Tank Man And how his weakness- " Ecce Homo"- " Behold the Man" Was his strength.
Myra | 03 May 2012

A good essay on a difficult subject! I believe that we should distinguish between political suicide and personal suicide. The reason for suicide bombers in places such as Damascus and public burnings by Buddhist monks is done to highlight political and social injustice. These people are not mad or irrational. The reason for personal suicide is generally because people feel alienated and isolated. I believe that the reason that men are more likely than women to commit suicide is that most men see life in absolute terms and are not interested in moral philosophy. I believe that people would be happier and have a better perspective on life if they read philosophers such as Nietzsche and Wittgenstein and the moral philosophy novels of Albert Camus and then discussed with family and friends.
Mark Doyle | 04 May 2012

yes Peter Shaw, not all suicides are a tragedy. Sometimes to end one's life is the right thing to do. Why is life is considered always sacrosanct yet judicial killing & 'just war' is OK? Very odd.
Rosemary West | 05 May 2012

Gillian, I took your article to be concerned with politically motivated suicide in the public arena. As you write, this sort of suicide seems to be mainly committed by young men. Their conscious deaths usually involve the involuntary participation of others in one mass death, as with suicide bombers. Perhaps "suicide bombing" is a misnomer? It seems the more unwitting victims involved the greater the status these people achieve. It's interesting you write from Greece where Western philosophy, medicine and drama originated. There are certainly elements of purported "philosophy", warped and twisted as it might seem, as well as high drama to publicise a "cause" in suicide bombers. Mr Christoulas was more a traditional suicide. He caused no one else's death. I bitterly regret all political suicides and all suicide. You raise many interesting psychological reasons for political suicides. Impotence and rage stick out as being important. I have no problem with Palestinians wanting their own state nor protesting against injustice. Likewise I would support Syrians fighting against the vile government of Bashar al Assad, both politically and in battle. I do have a problem with suicide bombers or bombs which kill innocent civilians. "Collateral damage" is a phrase which never justifies itself. Mr Christoulas, in my thinking, would have to take responsibility for his own death although I understand the Greek and European political situation might have contributed to his despair.
Edward F | 11 May 2012

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