Self-Immolation at National Mall: Man Sets Himself on Fire in DC

Alicé Leuchte | October 4, 2013

A man set himself on fire at the National Mall in Washington DC on Friday, in an apparent act of protest.  He survived and was airlifted to a hospital by authorities.  The Daily Mail reported that the DC Fire & EMS responded to the incident, and were quoted to say:

We are the lead agency in this investigation, but it will be awhile before we give out details to anyone.

New York’s WPIX 11 called it correctly in their headline, saying the man committed “self-immolation.”  While this form of protest is rare, it is not new or uncommon.  The first context that comes to mind when thinking about this act is Asia and the Buddhist monks of Vietnam and Tibet; however, this practice has roots in the west as well.

In 2012, The New Yorker wrote a history of the act of self-immolation, describing classical accounts from Greek mythology to Roman history.  The piece specifically mentions a reference by historian Eusebios around 300 CE:

Christians persecuted by Diocletian set fire to his palace in Nicodemia and then threw themselves onto it—presumably, to express their objections to Roman policy.

When investigating the sanity of self-immolation, the author sought the opinion of scholar Timothy Dickinson:

Fire is the most dreaded of all forms of death… The sight of someone setting themselves on fire is simultaneously an assertion of intolerability and, frankly, of moral superiority. You say ‘I would never have the guts to do that. It’s not that he’s trying to tell me something, but that he’s commanding me.’ This isn’t insanity. It’s a terrible act of reason.

In 2011, a business man in Greece publicly set himself on fire in protest of the economic and political situation in his country.  His demonstration set ablaze protest over the national crisis, and is said by some to be the spark that started the full civil uprising in Greece.  Other countries have seen similar acts recently, including Bulgaria, Norway and even Afghanistan, in protest to loss of civil rights or other political and economic conditions.

It is important for Americans to consider what this may mean for the USA.  If the national crisis is now at ‘self-immolation level,’ what is to follow?

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