THR Web Features   /   December 5, 2014

Self-Immolation, In Theory and In Practice

B.D. McClay

Ryszard Siwiec immolates himself to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, 1968.

When Charles Moore set himself on fire this summer, he had been retired from his work as a Methodist preacher for fourteen years. For his whole life, he had been a civil-rights agitator, fighting segregation as a young man and continuing to demonstrate against civil-rights violations as he grew older. But the older he got, the more he was struck by a sense of his own uselessness; and eventually, sticking a suicide note onto the front of his car, he burned himself alive in a strip mall parking lot in Grand Saline, Texas. Although those close to him were not expecting him to die this way, they were not surprised either.

These facts are all to be found in Texas Monthly's extensive profile of Moore, which suggests that his self-immolation was one of a long line of acts of renunciation, and part of a lifelong interest in martyrdom:

He’d wake at four, write, read all morning, do research at the library, come home, eat a cold dinner, and read novels until bedtime. He visited Charles Dickens’s home, Karl Marx’s grave, and John Wesley’s chapel. He went to see the statue of William Tyndale, who had been burned at the stake in 1536 for translating the Bible. “This certainly shows how the giving of one’s life at the right moment can be of great significance and that the argument against martyrdom because of the uncertainty of its effect is not convincing,” he wrote.

Self-immolation has most recently been associated with Tibet, and particularly a wave of Tibetan protests in 2011. (Moore left, along with his suicide note, a copy of a 2013 New Yorker piece on Tibetan self-immolation.) Self-immolation has been used as political protest elsewhere: in the United States, in 2013, when a man set himself in fire on the National Mall; in Communist-era Czechoslovakia (above); in multiple countries during the Arab Spring; and in present-day Bulgaria. The term refers not only to setting oneself on fire, but to any act in which a person "intentionally [kills] himself or herself…on behalf of a collective cause" (as defined by Michael Biggs here). Nonetheless, it is mainly identified with voluntarily burning to death.

In its contemporary form, the practice stems from the 1963 self-burning of Thich Quang Duc as a protest against President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam. As Quang Duc burned to death, a monk repeated, "A Buddhist priest burns himself to death. A Buddhist priest becomes a martyr" in Vietnamese (for the crowd) and in English (for the journalists who had been summoned to the scene). Malcolm Browne, a photographer on the scene, took a picture that immediately seized the attention of the worldwide public. His death was followed by a list of five demands, which the South Vietnamese government eventually granted.

Such a death is an act of political protest, usually of the powerless, who through an act of visible suffering draw attention to the wider perhaps invisible suffering around them. The self-immolator seeks not merely to die but to die horribly, in such a way that others will be compelled to take notice. Not all who choose to be human torches have a list of demands; some of them just want to be seen. Others do not know what else is left for them to do. “I did not want to simply commit suicide,” a Bulgarian man who had survived self-immolation told VICE. “We had all of these protests—we’re still having them—and nothing gets done. Nothing changes.” The interviewer did not ask him if he regretted the attempt, but the man said the resented those who intervened.

Moore’s death was an abstract protest against evil in the world, but not an evil that personally threatened him. His suicide note concerned racism, which, despite his lifelong activism, persisted as a societal evil and which he perceived as getting worse. Searching his soul, he found himself complicit in it. He had, he said, done too little to denounce the society in which he lived and too little to separate himself from it. He saw a long history of suffering and death from which he had been unjustly spared. He was powerless, against himself most of all, to bring an end to this evil. It could not be erased and it could not be made good.

Such a reason might explain why Moore called the fire of self-immolation “the light of justice, the warmth of mercy and the radiance of walking humbly with that Mysterious Power that gives and takes away, but also leads imperfect mortals to a higher plane.” He glossed over the suffering inherent in the act and the injustice it is meant to represent.

Faced with the evils Moore sought to expunge, most do not have the choice to suffer or to die; they simply do. The dead that Moore sought to honor did not seek or desire their deaths. The Tibetan self-immolators were not trying to take upon themselves an evil which they did not already bear. Self-immolation, as a practice, is a sign neither of justice nor of mercy. That is not where it is meant to point.

The Biblical framework that Moore knew promises little for life on this earth but that the wicked will prosper. It is a bleak promise, but one that remains unbroken. For those shaken by encounters with evil—even if only second-hand—it is a good promise to remember. We can now, if we wish, watch videos of agents of the law shooting children or dogpiling on an asphyxiating man or beating a homeless man to death. Laid alongside these deaths, Moore's self-immolation becomes both more attractive and more mistaken. It was not really his to take upon himself. He knew that, which was why he did it.

Self-immolation is not a serious temptation for most. As a political action, it commands respect,  precisely because it is too extreme for most people to perform. But when Moore died, he left behind nothing but a testament to his own frustration, and endless articles speculating on his psychological makeup. He was not insane. But the truth is, no person needs to kill himself in a strip mall parking lot to draw our attention to some unseen evil. People are dying already, if we care to see them.

B. D. McClay is the associate editor at The Hedgehog Review.