BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. A warning here. This next segment includes graphic and difficult conversations about suicide. Just before dawn this past Saturday, early morning joggers and cyclists in Brooklyn's Prospect Park were met with a gruesome sight, the charred remains of a body. David Buckel, a high-profile LGBT rights lawyer, had set himself on fire as a protest against climate change.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: In a handwritten suicide note found next to his body, he explained he doused himself in fossil fuels before lighting himself ablaze as a metaphor for the destruction of the planet.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: He wrote that pollution was ravaging the planet. He was the lead attorney in a famous case involving transgender murder victim Brandon Teena. It was the subject of the 1999 Hillary Swank movie, Boys Don’t Cry.
BOB GARFIELD: In a letter to the New York Times this week, two suicide prevention leaders wrote that it's a mistake to describe suicide as an understandable response to struggle and, quote, “bad events.” Decades of research, they wrote, suggest that mental health factors, like depression and anxiety, lead to suicide, not concerns over policy issues. Therein lies the dilemma for journalists covering suicides that are so horrifying, precisely to get the public's attention.
Andrew Poe is a professor of political science at Amherst College and is working on two books about politics and extreme protest. Self-immolation, he says, is defined as any suicidal sacrifice but has been increasingly associated with death by fire since the 1963 suicide in Saigon of the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức. Đức acted in protest to South Vietnam's repressive Diệm regime, and the Associated Press photo of him, his face half engulfed in flames, is among the most famous images of the 20th century. And the media reports were instantaneous.
ROGER HILSMAN, STATE DEPT.: And he assumed the lotus posture and another priest stepped forward and poured gasoline over him, and then suddenly a towering flame. And what was -- and the, and the, the priests and the nuns in the audience moaned and prostrated themselves toward this burning figure. [SIREN-LIKE SOUND] And he sat there unflinching, and the smell of gasoline and of burning flesh in the air, for ten minutes.
ANDREW POE: It required several monks and nuns coordinating, some lying in front of fire stations and police stations that might have been alerted to an emergency taking place, others preventing anyone from the crowd from attempting to douse the flames or extinguish the immolation from happening. It required much more than an individual engaged in a spontaneous action.
BOB GARFIELD: And it had the other, I don’t know, publicity advantage of not happening from a single gunshot but from a -- you know, a relatively prolonged event that is easily photographed, as this was, and found its way around the world very quickly. It was commented on by no one less than President John F. Kennedy.
ANDREW POE: That's right. In Kennedy's comments that in a way the images and Đức’s acts were provocative of so much emotion, that phrase, “so much emotion” became a crystallization of what self-immolation could provoke. What is left out of Kennedy's reflection and maybe is important to our thinking about self- immolation as an act of protest is to consider what sort of emotion is actually generated by these types of events. I'm not persuaded, as others might be, that self-immolation is meant to provoke sympathy. I tend to think of it as specifically being intended to provoke horror.
BOB GARFIELD: Look, I know it's gruesome to even talk about these events in terms of efficacy, but if the suicide’s motives are to raise awareness or indignation, there are more and less successful ways to go about that. I want to ask you about Emily Davison who, who died in a suicidal act, although maybe not intentionally suicidal, certainly reckless. She was a suffragette who went to a major horse race and did something very dangerous for the cause.
ANDREW POE: Emily Davison had prepared to hang a sash that announced the suffragette cause, calling out to the world at perhaps the largest sporting events in Western history at that time, June 8th, 1913, that's this right to vote was an issue that everyone needed to pay attention to. She entered the track where the horses were running and attempted to hang the sash upon the horse’s neck. But --
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The king’s horse, in this unhappy incident, is running third from last.
[SOUND OF CROWD REACTIONS/UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: But she was struck by the horse and she was trampled.
ANDREW POE: It became a point of political reflection, so adherence to the suffragette movement pointed out that this was an act of heroism and she took a risk, but those are the risks that one has to take for a significant political cause. But her detractors said, no, in fact, this is actually a moment that reveals the zealotry and fanaticism of the suffragette movement and we need to find political collaborators that we can work with, not fanatics who would go to such great lengths to enact their cause.
BOB GARFIELD: And then, on the other hand, there are times when -- how can I put this -- everything goes as planned. Ninety-eight years after Emily Davison lost her life, in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest of the authoritarian regime there and, in so doing, sparked the Arab Spring.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: His closest friends, anguished by Mohamed’s actions, took to the streets and began a popular uprising that lasted for weeks before it toppled the 23-year-old rule of President Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali.
ANDREW POE: Mohamed Bouazizi’s case seems different to me. This was not an event that was planned, as was the case for Davison's act or Đức’s act. This, in fact, seems to have been a moment of exhaustion in response to systematic and repeated oppression by police forces. Bouazizi’s self-immolation certainly became emblematic of the oppressions of Ben Ali's regime but it's hard to say that Bouazizi himself had been working to accomplish the transformation of that regime or was concerned with vast political upheavals as a result of his actions.
BOB GARFIELD: I perceive self-immolation is a kind of Eastern export. Is there something different about Eastern religion and thought that's more welcoming to the concept?
ANDREW POE: It’s my sense that, at least in the West, there is an anxiety about the morality of giving up of one's life, that Judeo-Christian ethical structures present a framework by which one's life is given and so the sacrifice of it in suicide is bound up in a notion of waste. That isn't to say that suicide is a normal or justified activity in either discourse but it is to say that, at least in the West, it has become specifically eschewed by religions.
BOB GARFIELD: So when it does happen here, as with David Buckel in Prospect Park, do the dynamics change the public reaction, the assumptions? Does the revulsion and the sense of taboo trump the awareness raising in Brooklyn more than in Saigon?
ANDREW POE: It’s my sense that more and more Americans are, unfortunately, facing the reality of suicide, both for political causes in the form of suicide terror but also in rising rates of suicide in less political contexts. That rising awareness of suicide may be changing how Americans conceive of an act like David Buckels’.
BOB GARFIELD: The World Health Organization is not happy when the media lavish too much attention on these acts because they believe that it creates copycats, even epidemics. Does that concern you?
ANDREW POE: The media faces a danger in how it frames suicide protest. The personalization and psychologicalization of these acts has a tendency to refocus our attention to the personal and the private, as opposed to the cause that these persons might be giving their lives for. Not all self-immolations rise to the level of the public imagination. The media isn't always reporting on every suicide that takes place. It’s certainly the case with Mohamed Bouazizi. There were dozens of self-immolations that took place in Tunisia that did not get reported on. And we know it’s the case, however rare, that self-immolations have occurred in the United States before David Buckel. But I think it is a danger that the media faces, on the one hand, reporting these acts but not reporting all of them. And which ones we choose to report and why, I think, is a serious question.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you one final cynical question. As someone who has surveyed the, the history of self-immolations, do you think that as a category of political activity it is, on balance, a particularly successful one?
ANDREW POE: I don't think it is an effective mode of protest, in itself. I think, in the end, self-immolation becomes effective in how it is received in the context it appears and in how it’s reported on. It really is rare that such an act would provoke political transformation. And so, so much attention to it as a possibility in comparison to other modes of protest, I think, is worrisome.
BOB GARFIELD: Andrew, thank you very much.
ANDREW POE: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Andrew Poe is a professor of political science at Amherst College.