Are Political Self-Immolations a Rising Form of Protest?

Content warning: Suicide/political self-immolations

In the current political sphere, acts of protest – against gun violence, government, oppression and more – are plentiful. Through marches and other forms, people are able to bring attention to issues that need to be addressed. They push their movements for the betterment of society and a bright future for the next generations. But even then change is not guaranteed. In response, some may take drastic measures.

On the morning of Apr. 14, David Buckel, a gay rights lawyer and ecological activist, committed self-immolation with fossil fuels as a form of protest and was found burned to death in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. In his suicide note, Buckel wrote that his death was a “metaphor for the self-destruction of the planet.” Despite this tragic loss, the gay rights advocate’s impact will be remembered and his death will not go unnoticed.

Self-immolation as an act of political protest is most recently exemplified by Tibetans who set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule, of which Buckel referenced in his suicide note. Only time will tell whether Buckel’s death will “serve others” as he hoped. Perhaps it will take a similar course to that of Thich Quang Duc, a monk who committed self-immolation in response to Buddhist persecution in 1963 in Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City), South Vietnam. Quang Duc, along with his supporters, meticulously planned this “political tool…to attract as much publicity as possible.” And so it did. A couple months later, America reevaluated their support of South Vietnam and sponsored a coup to end the reign of Ngo Dinh Diem. 

While their respective impact varies, protest of any kind is influential. Presently, thousands upon thousands around the world have gathered for marches and rallies like the Women’s March and March For Our Lives. Members of these movements aren’t only taking part in these rallies but taking what they learn and the power they gain to improve their own communities and schools for a better tomorrow. Political demonstrations bring people together to fight for a common cause. But what makes a single person look to suicide as a means of protest? And more specifically, why self-immolation?

Scholar Timothy Dickinson suggests that, since “fire is the most dreadful of all forms of death…the sight of someone setting themselves on fire is simultaneously an assertion of intolerability and, frankly, of moral superiority.” In this case, Dickinson implies, “self-immolaters” are more so commanding others to take action as opposed to solely bringing attention to the issue at hand. They are doing something others wouldn’t even dare think about. Powerful it may be, a life is lost in the process. While many may question Buckel’s reasoning, how does this situation compare to those in which people have died – by assassination or violence – fighting for their cause? Are they similar? Are they different? 

The push for progress is never-ending. People will continue to advocate for their rights and freedom. People will keep on marching, rallying and fighting for justice. However, will that be enough? Will new forms of protest arise out of necessity? Will self-immolation become common tactic?

Photo by Ben Mater/Upsplash

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