Our nation’s capital has been the setting for a string of shockingly bizarre and violent events in recent weeks.
A woman was shot and killed Thursday by police after leading them on a wild car chase near the US Capitol. Several weeks ago, 13 people were killed in a mass shooting at the Navy Yard.
And yesterday, a man lit himself on fire on the National Mall, in broad daylight – in full public view.
Katy Scheflen, a witness, said the man was standing alone in the center section of the Mall when he poured the contents of a gasoline can on himself and set himself on fire. She said several passing joggers tore off their shirts and attempted to smother the fire.
Scheflen, a furloughed civil rights attorney for the Justice Department, said she stopped because she saw “a guy with a tripod set up.”
She said another man, who she thought the tripod with a camera was filming, took a red can of gasoline and poured it over his head.
“At that point we didn’t know what was going, maybe it was some sort of stage protest,” Scheflen said. “And then he set himself on fire and went up in flames,” she said. “Whoosh.”
“It’s very shocking,” she said. “It’s horrifying. Literally watching this guy go up in flames. There was not really anything anybody could do.”
Scheflen said the presence of a mounted camera gave her the impression “He was aware something was about to happen. Otherwise he was filming nothing but a guy standing there.”
“It was obviously an intentional act, “she said. “Somebody has a video of the whole thing.”
A police department spokesman said the man, whose identity has not been revealed, was conscious and breathing at the scene. MedStar Washington Hospital Center tweeted that the man was taken there and he was in critical condition. (update: The man has still not been identified, but he died of his injuries Friday night – Ed.)
While we still do not know the man’s identity or motive, his actions are reminiscent of Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian fruit vendor who set himself on fire in front of a government building in late 2010 in protest of the harassment, abuse, and bribery local authorities inflicted upon him. His act is said to have been fueled by the chronic poverty and corruption of his country. He is viewed as a hero who inspired the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring. Following Bouazizi’s death, the public’s anger and violence intensified, leading to the resignation of then-President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Self-immolation, or setting oneself on fire, is often done as a form of radical political protest. It is a centuries-old practice that commands sympathy and outrage; an act of despair and self-sacrifice.
According to Washington D.C. based scholar Timothy Dickinson,
Fire is the most dreaded of all forms of death, so the sight of someone setting themselves on fire is simultaneously an assertion of intolerability and, frankly, of moral superiority. You say ‘I would never have the guts to do that. It’s not that he’s trying to tell me something, but that he’s commanding me.’ This isn’t insanity. It’s a terrible act of reason.
Two men set themselves on fire in protest of the recent Greek debt crisis, and the number of suicides in Greece rose by 40% during a recent 12-month period. There are at least eight other documented cases of self-immolation in protest of the European-sovereign debt crisis.
Was the self-immolation that occurred in our nation’s capital today a suicide attempt or an act of protest? Either way, it appears that desperate times call for desperate measures.