At about 4:30 on Friday, I was standing outside the building where I work, smoking a cigarette, just a few blocks from the National Mall. A helicopter was circling overhead at a low altitude – strangely low, I thought. Just at that moment, an unmarked, fire-engine red SUV flew past me down 7th street with flashing lights and a screeching siren. I watched it until it stopped near the Mall.
I watched curiously for a few more moments as more emergency vehicles flooded to the same point. My inner journalist had the almost irresistible urge to run down to the scene and start asking questions, but I was on the clock at my “real” job and after the news from the day before, I decided that it would be prudent to stay at a safe distance from the commotion.
I took out my phone and checked Twitter. Unconfirmed reports of a “man on fire” started popping up in my feed. One tweet (I think it was from NBC) reported that it might have had something to do with “loose materials” at a “homeless encampment.” I resigned myself to heading back to my cubicle and hunkering down for the last half hour before the weekend.
Since that time, we have learned precious little more than these scant “facts”:
1) The man (as of this writing, still unidentified) self-immolated using gasoline as an accelerant.
4) He was definitely photographed at close range and the entire incident was potentially filmed by an accomplice.
His motives are unclear at this point. Some reports cited eyewitnesses who say he saluted the Capitol building and that he may have referenced something about voting rights before lighting himself on fire.
Whatever the case may be, the incident has achieved shockingly little airtime on both local and national media. Self-immolation has a long history as a form of political protest and the choice of venue for this particular incident strongly suggests that this is the case here.
Politically-motivated self-immolation in the United States was a prominent protest “tactic” – as emotionless and academic as that term may be – during peak of domestic resistance to the Vietnam War in the 1960s. Here is a quick list (h/t Wikipedia) of those who self-immolated in protest of that war.
Alice Herz – March 26, 1965; Detroit
Roger Allen LaPorte – November 10, 1965; UN building, New York City
Florence Beaumont – October 15, 1967; Federal Building, Los Angeles
George Winne, Jr. – May 11, 1970; University of California, San Diego
Arguably the most well-known act of self-immolation in this country’s history happened in Washington, DC on November 2, 1965 when Norman Morrison set himself on fire in front of the Pentagon office of then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
After the end of the Vietnam War, the next high-profile act of self-immolation this country experienced was that of Kathy Change (October 22, 1996; University of Pennsylvania), a long-time pro-democracy activist whom many considered to have been dealing with mental-health issues. (Then again, as Kurt Vonnegut put it “A sane person to an insane society must appear insane.”)
On November 3, 2006, Malachi Ritscher (born Mark David Ritscher) self-immolated to protest the US’s invasion of Iraq. His suicide was largely ignored by the media for at least a week (arguably longer). He too was said to have struggled with mental health issues. Nonetheless, as Jennifer Diaz, a student who never met Ritscher but conducted research into his life, said “This man killed himself in such a painful way, specifically to get our attention on these things” referring to US actions in the Middle East.
Before the events of Friday, October 4, 2013, the most recent incidence of self-immolation in this country was June 15, 2011 when Thomas James Ball self-immolated on the steps of a family courthouse in New Hampshire in protest of what he perceived to be injustice by the court in violation of his rights as a father.
I think Diaz’s other quote about Ritscher pretty much sums up my feelings on this: “I’m not going to sit by and I can’t sit by and let this go unheard.” If someone is willing to take their own life in such a painful and public manner, the least we can do as a society is to try to understand what motivated them to do so.
— UPDATE (h/t John Anderson, @diymediadotnet): Last month a man in Houston attempted but failed to light himself on fire in front of the Exxon building in Houston. One witness was quoted as saying, “It was a couple of people saying it was because he couldn’t find a job.”
– UPDATE #2 Sam Husseini’s prescient post (from 2 years ago!) is definitely worth a read. Also, thanks to him for the info I missed in my overly-hasty research.
— Sam Husseini (@samhusseini) October 7, 2013