In one sense I’m a little late to the story of the man who died after setting himself on fire on the National Mall on Friday, but in another sense I’m not, given that almost nobody is talking about it. Self-immolation as political protest (an act that has a long history) is increasingly common worldwide, sadly, but most of its rise can be attributed to two Asian political crises: the ongoing turmoil over Tibet and the movement for a separate Telangana state in India. However, a new strain of self-immolation as economic protest has arisen in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse and the subsequent debt crises in the Euro Zone. Sarah Kendzior has chronicled this relatively new phenomenon of the economically destitute setting themselves on fire as a way to protest a worldwide economic system that seems designed to punish them for falling on hard times instead of helping them get back on their feet.
But those self-immolations all differ in two ways from what happened on Friday: first, they all happened Somewhere Else, and second, everybody knows why those people did what they did. Friday’s terrible event, and an attempted self-immolation a week earlier in Houston, brought self-immolation to America, but nobody even knows who the man who set himself on fire actually was, let alone why he did it, and it doesn’t really seem like we, the public and the media, care to find out the answers to either question. Why is that? Almost three years ago a man set himself on fire in Ben Arous, Tunisia, and an entire region underwent a series of enormous political upheavals as a result. But a man sets himself on fire in the middle of the capital of the wealthiest nation on Earth, “the greatest, best country God has ever given man” blah blah blah, and even at a time when the American people are inclined to agree that Shit Is Fucked Up and Bullshit, apparently we aren’t interested in wasting our beautiful minds on wondering why somebody in this country felt so despondent about his circumstances that setting himself on fire seemed like the right thing to do. This man didn’t stay home and kill himself by setting his house on fire; he sat down in the middle of the capital of this nation, poured gasoline over himself, and lit a match–this was a political protest in the middle of the most political city in the world. There must be a story to tell here, so why isn’t anybody starting to tell it yet?
Surely we can do better than this.