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Self-Immolation

Posted on 10 Oct | 1 comment
Photo by José Goulão.
Photo by José Goulão.

The news last week was obsessed with the inability of Congress to govern the country, as demonstrated by the shutdown. Cable sources were distracted for a moment by a woman who ran some barricades and was shot to death as she exited her car on Pennsylvania Avenue.

It is our fault. We are a nation increasingly obsessed with violence. Our Congress increasingly looks like Monday night wrestling, with dramatic, contrived, and wholly irrational story lines. This recent failure, though, is not at all newsworthy. It would be more newsworthy if our government actually showed an interest in the citizens who live here as more than ballots in a box. But we don't watch stories like that when they arrive on the news, so the cable news stations don't put them on.

The second half of the news makes the point more clearly. People are shot by police on a daily basis here, with a total of 30,000 incidences of fatal gun violence each year. But this woman furthers a narrative: our violence is driven by madness, as sane people are passive. Miriam Carey experienced some delusions, including that President Obama spied on her. Exactly what motivated her to run through the barricades is unknown at this time, and as she was shot to death, is unlikely to ever be known.

But we do know that she was unarmed and had her baby with her in the car. While it might have been difficult for the Washington DC police to assess the situation accurately, there was no imminent threat, no need to shoot her.

Now delusional content is influenced by the content of our culture. When we were kids, people thought they were being spied on by the KGB or CIA. Before that, they thought they were Napoleon or Jesus (Jesus is always popular in delusions of identity). More recently, terrorism has entered the national consciousness, and delusions are more likely to involve Al Qaeda. We can say with some certainty that the media conveyed the context for the content of this woman's delusions. Continual dramatization of the conflicts between branches and factions of government imprints onto our national identity the sense of being victimized. Some news branches do this more or less explicitly. That she was Black was hardly mentioned—I feel like it bears noting, but am unsure what this means to the national dialogue.

But there was a third event that barely made the news. If you spend a lot of time online, you might be aware a man, as yet unidentified, entered the National Mall opposite the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, doused himself in gasoline, and lit himself on fire.

Some passers-by attempted to aid him, but they could little in the face of a blazing gasoline fire. They beat the fire with their shirts, and the man lived long enough to be taken away by ambulance. He was able to thank them for their efforts. He later died in treatment. Reports of a man setting up a camera on a tripod remain vague; it may be a coincidence, or the event may have been recorded for some so-far unknown purpose. There are also vague reports the man may have saluted and mentioned something about voting rights.

Why are these events not of interest to disaster capitalists, to the writers of the "If it bleeds, it leads" narratives? Perhaps a focus group did not like the story?

There is not enough information here to surmise the person's purpose. Was this a simple suicide? Most suicides are not so public, do not give so much chance to rescue the victim. But maybe. However, we cannot fail to take notice of the method used here: self-immolation has long been a means of protest, especially from people committed to peacefulness. And the place in which this occurred must have some significance—it boggles the mind to imagine the man was protesting the aerospace museum, leaving the political capital of the United States as the logical target.

The trouble with suicide is it tends to spur suicide. When school-aged youth hear of a suicide in their or a nearby school, rates temporarily spike; when there is a school shooting, we all brace against news of a copycat, and are too often justified in our fears. Perhaps it is irresponsible to report on this self-immolation due to the likelihood of copycat immolations? Unlike other methods of suicide, this particular means does pose some risk to others, after all.

But I suspect it just does not fit the narrative. The narrative is that we are small and powerless, that unified action is of no use (look at the media treatment of the Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, and the portrayal of the Tea Party as idiots and lunatics), that individual action is insane and subject to extreme sanction—as demonstrated by Miriam Carey's horrifying case. At risk of sounding like your basic conspiracy theorist, there is no profit in it for the rich people who run all but a few, small media outlets in our country in publicizing this potentially effective, attention-getting political action.

CNN might have covered the story and portrayed the victim as troubled, found out if he was taking medication or going through a family problem. They could have shaped or distorted the story to fit the narrative: crazy person dies to no effect. They have done worse, however: they have buried the lead.

Individual action can succeed. And collective action can and does succeed regularly. It would in fact be horrifying if we all felt so powerless, so insignificant, that immolation seemed like our best course in life.

What you can do:
Turn off cable news. Write letters. Call your Congressperson repeatedly. Join an activist group.

-- Jason Dias

Read more stories by Jason Dias

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Funny, soon if you care about

Funny, soon if you care about anything you will be considered troubled.

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