Man on Fire.

On Friday, an as yet unidentified man lit himself on fire on the National Mall in Washington DC.  Hours later, that man died.

There were a few witnesses… one man had been photographing the mall when the man walked into his frame, doused himself with gasoline, and lit himself on fire.  He says the man made a sharp military salute before igniting himself.

Passers-by extinguished the flames by patting the man with their shirts.  When paramedics arrived, the man in question was conscious and breathing.  He thanked the people who had helped to put him out before they took him away.  One woman said that he was so badly burned that his arms were white with ash.

None of the news reports that I’ve read mention anything about him screaming.  Third degree burns are deep enough to destroy the nerve endings in the skin.  Fourth degree burns involve damage to deeper tissues, such as muscle and bone.  Recovery from such burns, however, can be excruciating, as the tissues scar and heal and the nerves begin to function again.  Many victims of very severe burns have multiple surgeries during the course of their recovery.

We don’t know who he was.  News agencies say that he will have to be identified using either his DNA or dental records.  Perhaps once he is identified, we will be able to find out more about his motivation.  Certainly he did not intend to survive this act, and that makes it an incidence of suicide, but most suicides aren’t so dramatic.  We have no way of knowing now whether this was a political protest, but self-immolation has a history of being performed as a protest.

According to Wikipedia, almost a hundred self-immolations were recorded between 1963 and 1971.  most of those occurred in the United States and parts of Asia to protest the Vietnam war.  There are some very compelling images from that era showing monks who have chosen to burn themselves.

The reason this is used as a form of protest is because it’s so visible and horrifying. Unlike some other types of martyrdom, self-immolation usually does not carry an intent to harm or cause damage to property.  Such a violent and peaceful act.

While it’s probably safe to assume that the man wanted his death to be news-worthy for one reason or another, I was stunned to read a witness saying that people were around him filming the incident on their iPhones.  I, in all honesty, would not want to have possession of such footage.  I feel as though it’s a sight that would take me years to forget.

More than that, an act of suicide is a very intimate expression of self.  It is an externalization of internal pain.  It is, at its root, an essentially human act, for better or worse.  Though this feels strange for an atheist to say, it is one of those situations that seems to me a sacred act.  Not that it’s a thing dedicated to a deity, but I feel that capturing video of such an event on your phone (potentially for upload to YouTube) cheapens it.  It’s a thing of such intensity, it feels wrong for it to be treated so casually.

Maybe I’m old fashioned.

Moreover, I’m not sure I could even witness such a thing without feeling ill.  I certainly wouldn’t want to watch video of it later… of another human being in such pain.  Even reading about it brought tears to my eyes.  And that begs the question; are we a compassionate people?  The language of compassion has been all but stripped out of our politics, but has that left us as a people without compassion?  Have the politics of selfishness changed our culture that extensively?

It might sound callous and inhumane, but I’m glad he didn’t survive his injuries.  People who light themselves on fire are generally prepared for their own death in whatever way, and the recovery can be such a misery.

I’ll be interested to see in the coming days what is revealed about his identity and possible motive.  It was initially thought that the photographer with the tripod on the mall was an accomplice, but it turns out he was a tourist instead.  I would be surprised if he didn’t leave a letter, note, manifesto, or journal behind.  People who perform such dramatic acts usually have considered it beforehand, and while such an act may not be classifiable as rational, there was probably a good deal of thought put into it.

It’s a strange and painful world out there, my friends.

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