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As a Tactic, Self-Immolation Is Often Counterproductive

As a Tactic, Self-Immolation Is Often Counterproductive
As a Tactic, Self-Immolation Is Often Counterproductive

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In 1963, the monk Thich Quang Duc soaked himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire to protest the government of the Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem. Within a few years, dozens more had killed themselves the same way. A Quaker named Norman Morrison stood outside Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s office, handed off his 1-year-old daughter to a stranger, and cremated himself. Back in Vietnam, a nun named Nhat Chi Mai wondered to a friend whether the tactic had lost its power through overuse. “Fasting and even self-immolation no longer wake people up,” she said. “We have to be imaginative!” She suggested they take part in a mass public disembowelment. Her friend said she’d think about it. In 1967, Nhat knelt before statues of the Virgin Mary and Quan Am, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and stuck with Plan A. She was 33.

This past weekend, a 25-year-old U.S. Air Force enlisted man livestreamed his self-immolation in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. He said he could no longer abide being “complicit” in “genocide,” and the last comprehensible words he uttered before collapsing were “Free Palestine!” Among the effects of his suicide was to disturb the many people scrolling through social media who (like me) inadvertently saw him dancing and chanting while engulfed in flames, and to inspire many supporters of the Palestinian cause to celebrate his act. The theologian and presidential candidate Cornel West praised his “extraordinary courage and commitment.” “Rest in power,” tweeted Jill Stein, the former Green Party presidential candidate, with an image of the young man ablaze.

I won’t speculate on the dead man’s mental health. He grew up in a cult, described himself as an anarchist, and generally eschewed what Buddhists might call “the middle way,” a life of mindful moderation, in favor of extreme spiritual and political practice. In addition to being an immoderate act, self-immolation is a violent one, indeed one of the most violent, and if you dislike violence, then you should abhor it no matter your view on the war in Gaza. Self-immolators choose that method over hunger strikes, civil disobedience, marches, and a long menu of other morally exemplary tactics.

It is also a tactic that succeeds and fails depending on the situation, and whether the moment is ripe for horrific violence or (as Nhat speculated) needs violence even more ghastly than can be achieved with gasoline. Virtually no one before Quang Duc had burned himself in protest of anything. The tactic is contagious. Another man had set himself on fire in December outside the Israeli consulate in Atlanta. Already the D.C. self-immolator is being turned into a hero, and that risks compounding this tragedy for no good reason.

There is a Buddhist tradition of suicide that values the shedding of one’s body as an end in itself. About 1,500 years ago, a Buddhist monk named Daodu declared that his body was “like a poisonous plant,” and burned himself alive to get rid of it. But for nearly all the self-burnings in the modern era, the goal was more worldly: to call attention to alleged injustice and stress one’s devotion to ending it. In a letter to Martin Luther King Jr., the monk Thich Nhat Hanh said that burning oneself will “prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance,” and demonstrate “determination and sincerity.”

The most comprehensive survey of the practice is by the Oxford sociologist Michael Biggs. He notes that some self-immolators inspired others to rededicate themselves to the immolator’s cause, and some—such as Morrison and Quang Duc—really did spur political change. (Diem’s government fell months after Quang Duc’s death.) But “most acts of self-immolation fail to generate any collective response,” Biggs writes.

And some public self-immolations have had the opposite of the intended effect, by suggesting that their perpetrators are every bit as fanatical as their enemies say. Biggs notes the counterproductive effect of the simultaneous ignition of five members of the outlawed Falun Gong sect in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 2001. One was a 12-year-old girl. Her screams aired on state television for a week and convinced many otherwise open-minded Chinese that Falun Gong was a death cult whose suppression they should cheer.

One can self-cremate for any cause, including a bad one. Americans tend to know about the self-immolation of Vietnamese monks because their target was an American war, unpopular even in America. Other waves of self-immolation are less well known in the United States, and if they were better known, they would extinguish sympathy rather than inspire it. In India in the 1990s, upper-caste students started lighting themselves on fire to protest a sweeping employment program for lower castes. Normally I would hope to understand a group’s views, and seek their nuances. Knowing that these young people burned themselves over affirmative action makes me pretty sure they were just fanatics.

The livestreamer in D.C. said he wished to end his complicity in the Gaza war. That war began when Hamas terrorists burned Israelis alive, and the livestreamer showed no appreciation of the irony that it would end, for him, with his own voluntary experience of the same fate. His willingness to suffer this way certainly demonstrated his “determination and sincerity,” to use Nhat Hanh’s phrase. It also showed his numbness to the suffering of others: His cinders should inspire action, but the much larger piles of cinders of whole families in the Kfar Aza kibbutz somehow should not.

In any case, does anyone think determination and sincerity are the missing ingredients in the current war? In this conflict, these qualities are cheap, and everyone knows it. I wonder if I am the only one left who would be more moved and persuaded by an absence of fanaticism. The Palestinian case, in its minimal form, goes something like this: Palestinians have lived in and around the territory of Israel for a long time, and Israel shouldn’t force them to move or mistreat them if they stay. The Israeli case is also simple: Jews have been there a long time too, and have their own right to safety and dignity. I am aware that even these summaries will draw vicious ire. But my point is that a decent person can agree with both, and from that serene starting point negotiation could begin. Social-media posts attributed to the D.C. self-immolator suggest that he thought Israelis were fair game for violence, one and all, and that fanaticism was his default setting.

Some people are, psychologically speaking, just built this way. But mass movements can choose whether they want to be associated with spectacular atrocities. I have serious doubts about the value of discussing anything with someone who brings a jerry can and a Zippo to the conversation. The Palestinian cause is already associated with death cultism: Hamas arrives at the conversations pre-drenched. Certain factions of the Israeli right seem excessively open to conflagration too. The tendency to celebrate and encourage this behavior, or even to be moved by it, strikes me as deeply sick. I am moved only to check the inspection certificate on my office’s fire extinguisher.



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