Self-immolation can be a form of protest, or a cry for help

Published on Friday, 31 May 2019 19:12
Written by Petula Dvorak

The Washington Post

Whatever Arnav Gupta was trying to tell us when he set himself on fire Wednesday near the White House while wearing a USA T-shirt, America needs to listen.

Self-immolation is a shocking, final act, the primal scream of a person who is feeling completely unheard. And it has long been the ultimate act of political protest.

We still don’t know why Gupta, a 33-year-old from Bethesda, Maryland, immolated himself in nation’s capital Wednesday. He may have taken his reasons to the grave. His family reported him missing, and police issued an alert, saying they were “concerned for Gupta’s physical and emotional welfare.”

So maybe this was a cry for help.

That’s what John Constantino’s family said about him in 2013 after the 64-year-old New Jersey man stood before the Capitol dome, gave a crisp salute to the structure and fatally set himself on fire. His family issued a statement through their lawyer saying he had fought “a long battle with mental illness.”

Desperation can definitely play a role. So can anger.

In 2016, Gulf War veteran Charles Richard Ingram III walked nine miles and then set himself on fire outside the New Jersey Veterans Affairs clinic where he had been told he would have to wait three months for a mental-health appointment.

John Watts, a 58-year-old Air Force veteran, also fatally set himself on fire in protest last year after fighting what he had called a corrupt Veterans Affairs system. He did it on the steps of the Georgia State Capitol.

Such terrible acts have a long history as a form of protest.

Many people remember the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, that arresting image of him sitting in the lotus position while engulfed in flames on a Saigon street on June 11, 1963, protesting what he saw as the mistreatment of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.

Two years later, 82-year-old Alice Herz, after returning from a demonstration against racial violence in Selma, Alabama, walked to a street corner in Detroit and set herself on fire. She had been protesting, marching and writing against the war in Vietnam and racial segregation in the American South. She had told her friends and family she was not being heard.

“She feels the country she loves is in danger,” her daughter, Helga Herz, told the Detroit Free Press two days after Alice Herz set herself on fire.

Her act was copied by a number protesters that year, all naming the Vietnam War as their reason. The most famous was Norman Morrison.

Morrison, a Baltimore Quaker who had long been protesting the United States’ wars, stood below Robert McNamara’s Pentagon office with his 1-year-old daughter, Emily, in his arms.

He handed Emily off to someone, doused himself with kerosene and set himself on fire. The father of three was 31.

After 1965, those protests became rarer, usually being committed by people who had lost hope for their cause.

David Buckel did it in a Brooklyn park last year after decades of fighting for LGBTQ rights and for the environment. He was the lead attorney for the estate of Brandon Teena, the transgender man raped and murdered in Nebraska in 1993 and whose life was made into the movie “Boys Don’t Cry.”

Buckel was 60 when he gave up the fight and set himself on fire, leaving a note next to the spot where he would die, apologizing for the mess. He died inside a ring of soil he had shaped to contain the fire.

Similarly, Methodist minister Charles Moore had been part of protests since Vietnam, battling racists, bigots and warmongers. He was 79 and tired in 2014 when he drove to the parking lot of a strip mall in Texas and set himself on fire in protest of the social injustice that persisted after all those years.

But many contemporary self-immolations in the United States were cries for help, suicides that were also protests: Self-immolation near the White House or on the steps of a government building is not the final, selfish rage of someone committing a mass shooting. And it is not a lonely suicide by someone who simply wants to disappear.

These acts are an unmistakable protest, the loudest, most spectacular cry that people in pain can come up with. And we owe it to them to listen.

Posted in New Britain Herald, Columns on Friday, 31 May 2019 19:12. Updated: Friday, 31 May 2019 19:15.