The man with no cause

Details are starting to emerge about the man who died after setting himself on fire last Friday on the National Mall. His name was John Constantino, 64, of New Jersey, and his family says that he had been battling mental illness for some time and that “a clear motive may never emerge.” They may be right, but I hope we don’t stop at “oh, he was mentally ill” and leave it there. I don’t think it would be going too far out on a limb to suggest that anyone who decides to pour an accelerant on themselves and then light a match is not in a stable place mentally. For that matter, any suicide can be said to have some mental health component behind it. Maybe that’s all that was going on here, but if that’s true then we probably ought to be asking how and why the mental health field failed this man and how we as a society can do better. Maybe, if the eyewitness reports of somebody at the scene filming the incident are accurate, this guy was actually coerced into this act, in which case justice needs to be done. But maybe, just maybe, Mr. Constantino did intend to make a political statement, in which case we ought to try and figure out what it was, the way we do when a Tibetan protester or a Chinese farmer does the same thing. What would’ve happened in the Arab World if Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation had been dismissed as a sign of mental illness and nothing else? Shouldn’t John Constantino get the same consideration as these other people before we chalk his act up to mental illness alone?


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