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From Norman Morrison to Malachi Ritscher

Self-Immolation as Anti-War Protest

by JOE DeRAYMOND

"When you own a big chunk of the bloody third world, dead babies just come with the scenery"

Chrissie Hynde, from "Middle of the Road", by The Pretenders

In November of 2005, the United States used white phosphorus munitions against the people of Fallujah, Iraq. Jeff Englehart, a former marine who spent two days in Fallujah during the battle, said he heard the order go out over military communication that WP was to be dropped. Mr Englehart, now an outspoken critic of the war, says: "I heard the order to pay attention because they were going to use white phosphorus on Fallujah. In military jargon it’s known as Willy Pete … Phosphorus burns bodies, in fact it melts the flesh all the way down to the bone … I saw the burned bodies of women and children." (as reported by Andrew Buncombe and Solomon Hughes: 15 November 2005, The Independent)

On November 3, 2006, on an off-ramp during rush hour in Chicago, Malachi Ritscher immolated himself. News reports have made much of the fact that his death had no immediate impact, since he was not identified for many days, and because the national news did not pick it up for several weeks. He is characterized as a troubled man. These are the words he left behind in his suicide note: "Here is the statement I want to make: if I am required to pay for your barbaric war, I choose not to live in your world. I refuse to finance the mass murder of innocent civilians, who did nothing to threaten our country… If one death can atone for anything, in any small way, to say to the world: I apologize for what we have done to you, I am ashamed for the mayhem and turmoil caused by my country."

In March of 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson authorized the use of napalm against the people of Vietnam. Napalm is a burning gel that sticks to the skin, and made flame throwers and incendiary explosives a staple of the US arsenal against Vietnam. A Business Week article (February 10, 1969) termed the chemical "the fiery essence of all that is horrible about the war in Vietnam."

On November 2, 1965, Norman Morrison immolated himself within sight of Robert McNamara’s window at the Pentagon, to protest the war in Vietnam. Norman did not leave a suicide note. His friend John Roemer described his action as follows, "I don’t know. I don’t know. He fought the war more and more deeply. I mean, when are you one of the Germans?…You have to be mentally different to fly in the face of received wisdom in this country. He played it out in his mind, I think, in terms of being a moral witness", and, "In a society where it is normal for human beings to drop bombs on human targets, where it is normal to spend 50 percent of the individual’s tax dollar on war, where it is normal…to have twelve times overkill capacity, Norman Morrison was not normal. He said, ‘Let it stop’ ".

The Vietnamese canonized Norman Morrison. Streets were named after him, a postage stamp was printed with his image, poems were written in his memory. The most quoted, by To Huu, includes this stanza:

McNamara!
Where are you hiding? In the graveyard
Of your five-cornered house
Each corner a continent.
You hide yourself
From the flaming world
As an ostrich hides its head in the
burning sand.

Norman was one of several people who chose to become a victim of the fire of the Vietnam War. Others include Vietnamese Buddhist monks, Quang Duc, June 1963, in Saigon; an unnamed monk in Phanthiet, August, 1963; Thich Nu Thanh Quang, in Hue, 1966. Each death galvanized opinion and resistance to the war within Vietnam. On March 16, 1965, Alice Herz, an 82 year old pacifist, immolated herself on a Detroit street corner. She stated in her suicide note, that she was protesting "the use of high office by our President, L.B.J., in trying to wipe out small nations." And "I wanted to call attention to this problem by choosing the illuminating death of a Buddhist." A week after Norman Morrison’s death, Roger LaPorte burned himself in protest in front of the United Nations in New York. In May of 1970, George Winne, Jr., burned himself in protest of the Vietnam War on the University of California campus in San Diego. (See Frances Farmer’s Revenge.)

Coverage of the sacrifice of Malachi Ritscher has been obsessively concerned with his sanity. The AP article on his death includes this conclusion, "Mental health experts say virtually no suicides occur without some kind of a diagnosable mental illness." Our government and its experts expect that rational citizens living rational United States lives understand that the burning of civilians is just part of the scenery, a necessary element of foreign policy. A person who actually takes responsibility for the purposes to which his/her tax monies are being devoted is by definition insane. It is a world turned upside down, in which torture, napalm and white phosphorus are "legal", and peaceful protest criminal. It is no mystery to me that there are human souls who cannot bear the light of truth, and choose to join the victims of our culture’s madness.

JOE DeRAYMOND lives in Freemansburg, PA. He can be reached at: jderaymond@rcn.com