Twenty Years Ago Today -- Immolation Revolutions Now; And the Ones to Come

Let a man in a garret but burn with enough intensity and he will set fire to the world.

 -- Antoine de Saint Exupéry (best know as the author of The Little Prince)


Perhaps it was just a coincidence that he used newspapers to do it. 

But I don't think so.

From what I know of Greg, he had a sense of symbolism. I don't know a thing about the other two Americans from that year. 

I do know some about Mohamed. Much of the world does. That's because when he set himself ablaze, his town, nation and people followed.  

But Greg was not so lucky.

Twenty years ago today -- as the U.S. bombing of Iraq in the Gulf War entered its fifth week -- a few minutes before 2, Gregory Levey walked to the Amherst, Massachusetts town common with newspapers stuffed under his clothing. He doused himself with paint thinner. The first match went out. With the second, he lit himself afire. 

You probably haven't heard of him; he doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry. In all the stories last month about self-immolations, none I could find mentioned him. Instead they all focused on self-immolation cases from the Vietnam War. This was partly because the sociologist many turned to, Michael Biggs at Oxford, who wrote the paper "Dying Without Killing: Self-Immolations, 1963-2002," emailed me that he didn't know about Levey. A New York Times article shortly after Levey's death refers to two others who killed themselves protesting the Gulf War 20 years ago -- I've as yet been unable to find anything about them, not even their names. 

Levey had a placard with the word "PEACE" written on it and his drivers licence attached. 

Jennifer Cannon recently wrote me: "I was one of the first people on the Amherst Common after Greg's self-immolation. I was a UMass undergraduate student at the time. A group of us formed -- anti-war students, local community members, Buddhist monks from the Leverett Peace Pagoda -- and we held vigil 24 hours a day until the town forced us to leave about two weeks later. It was a profound and deeply moving experience. Everyone involved with the vigil knew that Greg chose to end his life in order to make a statement about how wrong the war was. ... Maintaining the vigil in 'liberal' Amherst was not easy. We were harassed every day and night -- often with trucks driving by with the American flag, honking their horns and people yelling and swearing at us. We were seen as anti-war and therefore as unpatriotic and not supporting the troops. ... It is devastating that the war continues."

It's an interesting phrase by Jennifer. Few public conversations consider that fundamentally, it's all been one long war since 1990 that has manifested itself in different ways. The 20th "anniversary" of the Gulf War has gone virtually unmentioned I think in large part because, to acknowledge it in a meaningful way, the U.S. would have to stop pretending that it was just minding its own business when the 9/11 attacks happened. 

Two memorial journals were filled during the vigil following Greg's death. One page read: "It's raining now, the day after your courageous, determined, peace-filled death. It snowed last night and now there's a circle of stars surrounding snow flows of every color ... It's beautiful. We continue to live in hope that your action and our actions will stop this war, this madness, the killings and that as we approach the 3rd millennium, we will truly live in peace. Wherever you are, you will be in my heart forever. Peace and love to you." Whoever wrote that was trying to give Levey's being life. 

In contrast: On February 4, White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs said: "And as we recall, a fruit vendor in Tunisia had his fruit stolen and lit himself on fire." Gibbs kills. He kills because he tries to deceive about death, about someone's sacrifice for others. Gibbs doesn't want people to know that Mohamed Bouaziz, whose self-immolation sparked the uprising in Tunisia, was slapped around not by robbers, but by Tunisian government forces. He doesn't want people to know that Bouaziz set himself on fire in front of the municipal building in his town of Sidibouzid, literally taking his grievance to the government's doorstep. 

The columnist James Carroll recently wrote: "But, for all the desperation that might motivate self-immolation -- born perhaps of nobility, but also perhaps of crushing mental illness -- it is urgently important to decry such violence. That it is inflicted against the self makes it different from assault against others, but it is still violence. All cults of martyrdom are inhumane -- including self-martyrdom. ... In the face of death in all its forms, choose life." 

This is directly contradictory to the view of the Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan: "I think in Christianity that something very great has been lost. Jesus' death, I think, in a very deep sense can be called a self-immolation. I mean that He went consciously to death, choosing that death for the sake of others, reasonably and thoughtfully." Berrigan argues that people who burned themselves protesting the Vietnam War should not be said to have committed "suicide" since "suicide proceeds from despair and from the loss of hope and I felt that [Roger Laporte, a Catholic Worker self-immolator] did not die in that spirit."

Thich Nhat Hant, a Buddhist monk says of self-immolation: "I think we must try to understand those who have sacrificed themselves. We do not intent to say that self-immolation is good, or that it is bad. ... When you say something is good, you say that you should do that. But nobody can urge another to do such a thing. ... It is done to wake us up." He relates the story of a young Vietnamese woman, Nhat Chi Mai, who immolated herself -- and was so joyous the month before that people thought she was planning on getting married. He also argues that others are burning themselves but [quoting another monk] "in a slower way. I am burning myself with austerity, with active resistance against the war." (See chapter on self-immolation in The Raft is not the Shore -- conversations between Berrigan and Nhat Hanh). In some ways, self immolation is an attempt at a life of service all at once. We are all oxidizing slowly, they chose it all at once. 

At least two other people in the U.S. have immolated themselves since the Gulf War (see list of political self-immolations). In 1996, Kathy Change immolated herself in Philadelphia, craving some attention for her desire to remake society. She wrote: "I want to protest the present government and economic system and the cynicism and passivity of the people ... as emphatically as I can. But primarily, I want to get publicity in order to draw attention to my proposal for immediate social transformation. To do this I plan to end my own life. The attention of the media is only caught by acts of violence. My moral principles prevent me from doing harm to anyone else or their property, so I must perform this act of violence against myself." 

In November 2006 Malachi Ritscher immolated himself in Chicago. "Maybe some will be scared enough to wake from their walking dream state" he wrote. "When I hear about our young men and women who are sent off to war in the name of God and Country, and who give up their lives for no rational cause at all, my heart is crushed. ... Half the population is taking medication because they cannot face the daily stress of living in the richest nation in the world.... The violent turmoil initiated by the United States military invasion of Iraq will beget future centuries of slaughter, if the human race lasts that long. ... Wouldn't it be better to stand for something or make a statement, rather than a fiery collision with some drunk driver? Are not smokers choosing death by lung cancer? Where is the dignity there?" I recall being appalled by the lack of media coverage of Ritscher's death. Even programs like Democracy Now wouldn't mention it

Aaron Glantz reported late last year: "In the six years after Reuben Paul Santos returned to Daly City from a combat tour in Iraq, he battled depression with poetry, violent video games and, finally, psychiatric treatment. His struggle ended last October, when he hung himself from a stairwell. He was 27. ... An analysis of official death certificates on file at the State Department of Public Health reveals that more than 1,000 California veterans under 35 died between 2005 and 2008. That figure is three times higher than the number of California service members who were killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts over the same period." This didn't count the reckless deaths. Glantz found ten times as many motorcycle deaths by veterans over non-veterans. 

Bouazizi wrote on his Facebook page before immolating himself: "Traveling, o Mom. Forgive me. No blame is beneficial. Lost in a path that is out of your hands. Forgive me, if I disobeyed the word of my mother. Blame the time and not me. Leaving but not returning. For much I cried and tears streamed from my eyes. No blame can benefit in a time that is treacherous in the land of people. I am tired and all that passed left my mind. Traveling and asking what can make you forget."

Mohamed Bouaziz, Greg Levey and the others who immolated themselves recently in Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Mauritania -- whom we know little about so far -- seem to represent neither the lonely despair of veteran suicide, nor the near joyous embrace of the Vietnamese woman Mai. They represent a desire to leave an oppressive life, but to leave it in such a way that might benefit others. A refusal to live in permanent subjugation -- a liberty though death -- and a hope that by exiting that subjugation though death, a dignified life might be achieved for others who one loves.

Shortly after Bouazizi's death (he lived for several weeks after his December 17 immolation) the Tunisian activist Fares Mabrouk said to Democracy Now: "The lesson from the Tunisian people is a lesson of dignity. I have a video of two days ago. Two days ago, from the balcony of downtown Tunisia, people were shooting from the window, 'Dignity! Dignity!' at 2 in the morning." 

A short time later Egyptian activist Asmaa Mahfouz recorded a YouTube video calling for protests on January 25. It began: "Four Egyptians have set themselves on fire, thinking maybe we can have a revolution like Tunisia ... maybe we can have freedom, justice, honour and human dignity. Today, one of these four has died, and I saw people commenting and saying: 'May God forgive him, he committed a sin, and killed himself for nothing.' People, have some shame. ..."

A lengthy piece about Levey by Pippin Ross in Boston magazine [June 1991] tells us "[Robert] Levey says that his son was both outraged and amused by how the established press does little more than swallow the government line. 'I think American foreign policy is central to why he is dead,' says Robert Levey." Both Greg's father, Robert, and his step mother, the columnist Ellen Goodman, were in the newspaper business. The Boston magazine piece gives a chronology of Levey's last days. It doesn't state it, but from the chronology, one can extrapolate that Levey seems to have been stunned by the February 13 bombing of the Amariyah Shelter, which killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians. I recall being devastated by it -- and by the incredibly callous media coverage of it. So of course, Levey and the others were victims of media in death as well as in life.  

Life is burned and demeaned by ignoring what sacrifice someone has made, and why. And life is honored by hearing those who immolate themselves, for no one knows what might rise from their ashes.

Many of Sam Husseini's writing are at husseini.posterous.com. Thanks to the activist community of Amherst and the staff at the Jones Library for material on Greg Levey's life.

5 responses
The act has always 'startled my soul' in some inchoate way. It just stops my heart every time I learn of it. I've never deeply explored why. But when you say, "In some ways, self immolation is an attempt at a life of service all at once. We are all oxidizing slowly, they chose it all at once." that strikes something deep in me. The whole piece really. Thank you Sam. Dove Sta Memora.
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