Witness to a Fire

Last week, Wynn Bruce, a 50-year-old climate activist, set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court building. After he died, a woman who identified herself as his friend tweeted that the act was planned to bring attention to the climate crisis. That it happened was reported by national news outlets, but it is difficult to figure out what more to say about self-immolation.

Bruce’s death reminded me of a time in my life when I was obsessed with finding that something to say. In 2014, I planned a reporting trip to New Delhi to meet with a young Tibetan activist. A few years before, he had tried to self-immolate in protest of Chinese rule of his homeland, but the police tackled him to smother the flames. A 2012 story in The New Yorker estimated that at least 40 Tibetans had self-immolated over the previous year to protest Chinese rule. Total numbers are hard to come by, but needless to say, these acts continue to occur. And the phenomenon is not exclusive to Tibetans.

I had started thinking about self-immolation in 2013 while reporting on a mass shooting at a nursing school in Oakland, Calif., and how it had ripped apart Tibetan, Korean, Filipino and Nigerian immigrant enclaves in the area. At a coffee shop in Berkeley, I met a Tibetan writer named Topden whom I hoped would give me some insight into his community and help connect me with one of the survivors, a Tibetan nursing student.

We ended up talking about self-immolation and the nature of death. In my 20s, I had studied Buddhism, and although I had long since wandered off the path to enlightenment for an ego-driven writing career, the idea of detachment was still central to my thinking, as it is today. This was followed by a bout with cancer that shook loose many of my thoughts about dying. In this state, I could understand why someone would sacrifice his or her life to ease the suffering of others. But the act of self-immolation still felt foreign to me — I had never met anyone who believed in anything that much.

At the time, I was also thinking through the idea of protest and the meaning of sacrifice. In ways that I can now identify as vain and a bit annoying, I did not understand why my friends, many of whom considered themselves “political,” refused to give up anything for their causes. (I, of course, did very little myself.) I was fascinated by how someone arrived at the decision to choose such a painful end. People who set themselves on fire were not, as far as I could tell, activists who were simply choosing a spectacular form of suicide, but rather people who had made a conscious decision to end their lives for what they believed in.

And yet, the act terrified me as much as it was confusing. And I couldn’t really understand why the Dalai Lama, who seemed to have the influence to stop these self-immolations, appeared almost ambivalent about them. Around the time I was talking to Topden, the Dalai Lama had said that he saw the self-immolations as a form of “nonviolence.” In 2017, he told the TV host John Oliver that he could not condemn them because he did not want the families of the people who had died to feel sorrow that their loved one had gone against the Dalai Lama’s wishes. (This article from the Brown Political Review looks at his stance.)

I generally try to write in moments of discomfort, but before I was supposed to report the story about the Tibetan activist, there was a larger ethical question that I couldn’t quite resolve. Most people’s knowledge of self-immolation begins and ends with the famous photo of Thich Quang Durc, the South Vietnamese monk who burned himself alive in Saigon in 1963 to protest religious persecution by the government of Ngo Dinh Diem. This image captivated the world and inspired other monks in South Vietnam to follow suit. International media coverage continued, including a dispatch written by a young David Halberstam. Since then, the consensus has been that people self-immolate to shock the public into global outrage over an injustice, or, in Wynn Bruce’s case, an impending catastrophe. This, of course, requires media attention.

Over a series of conversations with my editor at the time, I realized that by writing a story about self-immolation, I might inspire someone to do it. It didn’t matter that much of the scholarship on Tibetan self-immolation seemed to suggest that international attention wasn’t the only motivating factor. As long as the possibility existed, I did not feel comfortable writing the story, and so I let it go.

My thoughts about self-immolation receded until 2017, when Aijalon Gomes, a 38-year-old man who had fallen on hard times, was found burned in a park in San Diego. Police weren’t sure whether he had lit himself on fire by accident or had self-immolated.

Seven years before, when Gomes was teaching English in South Korea, he felt a calling to go teach children in North Korea. Upon crossing into the country through China, he was quickly apprehended and sentenced to eight years in a labor camp. While in custody, he tried to kill himself, but was eventually released after former President Jimmy Carter went to North Korea. Gomes later wrote a book titled “Violence and Humanity: A Saga” about his travails.

Before any of this, Aijalon Gomes was the resident adviser of my dorm during my freshman year of college. He mostly stayed to himself, but he would quietly tell us please to turn down our music with a reassurance that it wasn’t a big deal. When I talked to my friends from college after hearing about his death, nobody knew what to say other than, “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.” We believed there was no meaning to glean.

It’s hard to get comfortable with such violence. Wynn Bruce’s act of protest feels senseless because his death will not change the way legislators, corporations and individuals go about their polluting lives. There is a silent calculation among witnesses that accompanies any act of civil disobedience, even those we may agree with on principle: What is the point? This is standard fare for how many people think about protests, violent or not. We tend to pathologize the activists and imagine that they must be animated by the pettiness and greed that motivates us. In many cases, they are.

But self-immolation forces the witnesses, whether in person or through the news, to confront an intensity of conviction that goes well beyond what they may think is possible. In this way, self-immolators like Thich Quang Durc become almost inhuman, even holy. At the same time, the act establishes an entirely personal connection because the real question at hand isn’t really, “Why did he do that?” Rather, the self-immolator is asking you — with all the intimidation and self-righteousness a person can muster — “Why don’t you care even half as much as I do?”

I am still horrified by self-immolation, but I also believe that we should resist the urge to write it off as the last act of the mentally ill and the desperate. Nor should we simply frame each incidence with some made-up measure of how much effect it has had on the world. The discomfort we feel over this practice and our sincere desire to see it end should not preclude us from taking it seriously as an act of protest. We should hope this practice ends, but we also shouldn’t just look away.

Wynn Bruce lit himself on fire on Earth Day 2022 because he believed it might inspire people to work against climate change. There is not any more or less meaning we need to take away from it.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

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