When I was about 15 I, like many teenagers before and many since, became enamoured by political rap-rock band Rage Against The Machine. Like a lot of fans, I wasn’t quite sure what all the songs were about, but there was no mistaking that their rage was not mere teen angst – they really meant it. Contributing strongly to this conclusion was the striking artwork of their first album. Looking out from the cover was a Buddhist monk, sitting cross legged while his body was engulfed in flames. The monk was Quảng Đức, the photo taken in 1963 when Quảng publicly set himself on fire to protest persecution of Buddhists by Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem.
It’s not often that I think much about self-immolation, but it has come up several times in the news in recent weeks, getting me thinking about this most extreme form of protest.
Most pressingly, there was the story of 23 year old Iranian asylum seeker Omid. Omid was a processed refugee, but has been settled permanently in Nauru, where conditions are so desperate that when United Nations representatives turned up for an inspection two weeks ago, Omid doused himself in petrol and lit a match. Onlookers tackled him and put the flames out, but he died from the burns several days later in the Royal Brisbane Hospital.
Not quite breaking news this time; but self-immolation also came up in the recent obituaries of Catholic priest Dan Berrigan, who died last week aged 94. During the Vietnam war Berrigan walked into a conscription office and set fire to all the draft cards, went on the run after being sentenced to prison, and then later broke into a nuclear weapons silo to destroy a couple of warheads. But one of his most controversial moments was one he was involved in only by association – Roger Laporte, a student and friend of Berrigan, set himself on fire outside the UN building in New York in 1965; echoing the actions of Quảng Đức in one of the earliest public protests against the Vietnam war.
While Buddhism has a tradition of ritual suicide, in Catholicism killing yourself is a mortal sin, and the thought that Berrigan could have been complicit in it was a source of much controversy – he was removed from his New York post by the church hierarchy and virtually exiled to South America. Berrigan later wrote “We had never known an occasion where a person freely offered his life, except on the field of battle or to save another person. But the deliberate self-giving, a choice which didn’t depend upon some immediate crisis but upon thoughtful revaluation of life — this was very new to us and was, indeed, an unprecedented gift.”
In more recent times, probably the most famous act of self-immolation was Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose public suicide in 2011 helped set in motion the momentous Arab Spring, a wave of protest against dictatorial governments across the Middle East (Tunisia seems to have done alright from those events; Libya, Syria and Egypt are in chaos but we can hardly blame Bouazizi for that).
The historical acts of self-immolation I’ve mentioned are remembered because of their tremendous impact – all three were very public and widely reported, and the shocking extremity of the acts catalysed movements around the causes. Sadly I guess this is not always the case. In India earlier this year I found myself in McLeod Ganj; the small Himalayan town where many Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, have settled after fleeing from the Chinese occupation of Tibet. In the streets of McLeod Ganj is a wall dedicated to the many Tibetan monks who have self-immolated in the last couple of decades. Seeing that wall is a strange and uncomfortable experience – you are struck by the magnitude of those actions, but you can’t help but feel that this tactic isn’t working very well and maybe it’s time to find a new less horrific way of protesting Chinese rule. Over 100 Tibetans have set themselves alight since 2009.
Which brings us back to the death of Omid in Nauru. The self-immolations we remember were astonishing images that also acted as tipping points in the scales of history – raised peasants against dictators, turned the prosperous teenagers of post-war America into the most militant anti-war movement in history. But not every person who razes themselves is remembered; and while it did gain media attention, sadly it seems unlikely at this stage that Omid will be mentioned in the obituaries of others 50 years from now.
You could blame bad timing – the budget and election have subsequently taken up the front pages – but that would be wrong. The day after it happened, the media response to Omid’s protest was already playing out as if it was business as usual. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton might as well have a pre-recorded message to play at press conferences for the amount of reaction any kind of refugee news or action prompts in him. He was stoic as ever in response to Omid – “If people think that through actions of self harm or harming a member of their family that that is going to result in them coming to Australia and then staying here permanently, then again I repeat the message that is not going to be the outcome… If I can appeal now to those people who are on Nauru and on Manus, it doesn’t matter what others are saying to you … you will not ever settle in Australia.”
Racists on social media were also predictable in their tasteless responses, but even sympathetic Australians in the media and community were at a loss for how to respond. What were we supposed to do? We are overloaded with the emotional weight of endless stories of government cruelty and refugee tragedy. Like a body gone into shock, we are unable to feel anything any more. How else could you handle hearing about a situation so dire that we are so powerless to change? I applaud everyone who turned out to protest rallies in response, but these rallies have been done so many times before that they are almost like Dutton’s monotonous press conferences. With every new low in refugee policy, we trundle into the city to listen to speeches , march around the block and yell our throats hoarse with chants that reverberate off the skyscrapers then fade into the ether.
How did we possibly get to this point where a human being setting themselves on fire seems like the daily humdrum? The politicians have intentionally numbed themselves to avoid having to make a political decision that could risk any kind of public reaction. At this point Dutton’s ability to feel anything is so far gone that if he set himself on fire he wouldn’t notice until the smoke alarm started going off. But Labor are no better, their silence in the face of every refugee tragedy condemns them every bit as much as the Liberals.
Dutton’s response hints at another uncomfortable thing about our society. The way he talked about Omid’s action was as if it was an act of manipulation not desperation. In our ever-mediated society, it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s advertisement. There is no compassion for a fellow human, no smelling the burning flesh or tasting the smoke. The only thing that’s real is our refugee policy, which should be protected from those who would try to force us to change it. The story appeared as another item on the endless news feed, to be read then scrolled past.
I guess that’s the advantage of stashing away these refugees on islands far away where no one ever goes. Omid’s widow is already scheduled for deportation to a fate too horrific to contemplate – stuck on the small island where her husband publicly killed himself, with nowhere to go and nothing to do except think about it again and again.
It wasn’t always like this. The suicides of Quảng Đức and Roger Laporte in the 60’s shook the world. American journalist David Halberstam wrote of Quảng Đức’s death “Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shrivelling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think.” The extraordinary photos shocked the world who could look into Quảngs eyes and see a fellow human being.
The only shocking thing now is our inability to respond. Somewhere between self-immolation being just another image used to sell another product (I do still like Rage) and just another example of cruelty in a world that gets more cruel every day; we have lost any sense of connection with people suffering from the laws of our nation. For the sake of the future, we need more people like Dan Berrigan, who said:
“Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope that you might have baked it or bought or even kneaded it yourself. For that look on his face, for your meeting his eyes across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little, even.”