Self-Immolation in the Best Possible World – Part 1

“If I thought it would help I would immolate myself in full view of the camera crews; my counterclaim. But as we all know the only tale that would be told would be that it was me, not them, who was insane.”

– “Cop Just Out of Frame” by Propagandhi

I would like to begin with a disclaimer. In the unlikely event that a loved one of the man memorialized below happens upon this essay, please accept my deepest sympathies. What follows fails to accommodate the magnitude of your loss. It is not my intention to pick at the pain that you have suffered or diminish the tragedy of your loved one’s departure. Nor is it my intention to encourage other people to leave the world behind. We have a responsibility to one another to stick around. But we also have a responsibility to do what we think is right and sometimes those two things are in tension. If you knew and loved David Buckel, out of fairness to yourself please don’t read on.

On April 14, 2018, David Buckel used the last fossil fuel that he would consume in his life to soak himself in accelerant and light himself on fire. 

He likely did not burn for very long. The time between his distribution of his statement of purpose and the first 911 call was approximately 20 minutes. While the New York Times devoted a number of features to Mr. Buckel’s life and death, it barely registered on the 24 hour cable news cycle. He contacted a number of media outlets immediately prior to striking his match, stating that his actions were intended as a protest against the thoughtless short-sightedness that was driving the mass extinction already underway on planet earth. He left a note near his corpse apologizing to the civil servants who would be forced to discard the evidence of his sacrifice. 

Media treatments of this event generally followed similar contours. They provide the reader with a sense of the man. Those who knew him loved him. By all accounts he was saintly, an attorney dedicated to the advancement of rights for LGBTQIA people, a father who raised a daughter alongside three other parents, an environmentalist who committed himself to the organization of a composting facility in Brooklyn. 

But then, after cataloging the accomplishments wracked up in a life well-lived, the questions begin. 

What possessed a man who lived so well, one who was loved by a broad circle of people, to do such a thing? Why did he do it when he did it (and where he did it)? The subtext of these questions is that Mr. Buckel was not in his right mind. Many articles provide contact information for the National Suicide Hotline, as if this could deter someone from committing an act that was less about ending a life than it was about saving billions of them (and that’s only the lives of human beings).  

I indulge in one of many possible gross internet pleasures. I read ‘comments’ sections on news sites when they exist.

My favorite is Fox News. These digital spaces are the refuge of the truly and profoundly stupid. There is a cluelessness necessary to engage with these forums that provides me, a detached observer, with a sense of superiority that I don’t often experience in my life. In this instance the New York Times sidebar of reader’s comments in response to Mr. Buckel’s self-immolation offered a deluge of idiotic common sense in which his actions were interpreted through the lens of mental illness. 

I don’t think Mr. Buckel was any more or less mentally ill then anyone else traumatized by the arc of human history towards mass murder and oblivion. I don’t think the act was crazier than any other possible means of intervening in our 21st century holocaust. I don’t fault him for doing it in Prospect Park. 

There is a general sentiment among those who decry his actions that he at least should have done it in Times Square for a more visibly shocking outcome. Alongside this is the question of why he did it at the break of dawn. 

These questions are stupid. He did it in the way he did it because he couldn’t have accomplished it in any other way. Anyone who seriously considered the thinking of a person committed to this course of action would be guided in the same direction. 

The likelihood of being able to successfully accomplish his goal in Times Square is very slim. In order to douse oneself in gasoline amid the army of police that patrol the center of Manhattan one would have to be virtually invisible. If apprehended he would have inevitably been accused of plotting some outlandish act of terrorism. And if he succeeded in striking the match he would have likely been ‘saved’ from his fate and forced to live the remainder of his life in the excruciating pain of the victim of severe burns. It would have transformed beatification into a farce.   

Mr. Buckel was not insane. He was well aware of the tradition of self-immolation that runs through the history of Buddhist scripture and political struggle and referenced this in his letter to the media conglomerates that would be more interested in his death than the issues he fought for, literally to his last breath and beyond.

The most iconic instance of self-immolation was that of Thich Quang Duc in Vietnam, creating an image that ricocheted around the world, casting the light of a raging inferno on the corruption and brutality of the North Vietnamese puppet regime in 1963. And yes, it is a shame that Mr. Buckel’s death was not caught on film as Quang Duc’s was. It is equally shameful that there was not a crowd surrounding him, prostrate at his act of ascension, as there were at the occasion of Quang Duc’s. He committed the noblest of deeds in a society with no frame of reference for his generousness of spirit.

Even if there was not a tradition of self-immolation among those attempting to confront forces much greater than themselves, it would still be a sacrifice meant to inflict some wound upon the apocalyptic juggernaut of a society in which we live. It would still have been angelic. It would still have been an act of love. His only sin was doing what was right in a world that refused to hear his screaming defiance. 

It is worth noting that Mr. Buckel was a Buddhist. I generally take professions of a religious affiliation with Buddhism on the part of Anglos with a grain of salt, as I do with those who align themselves with Christianity. I think “If you really believed that…” followed by a litany of boolean logic. People’s religious leanings are simply a box that they check. It’s not a religious affiliation so much as it is an identity that serves as shorthand for who you exclude from your life. It allows us to think we’re good people while all it really does is reveal that we’re hypocrites. 

Not so for Mr. Buckel. The act of burning oneself is holy in almost every iteration of Buddhism that he might have adhered to. It is sacred, signifying a thoroughgoing compassion for all living things and a casting aside of one’s attachment to the body. It is only in what is beyond a doubt the most selfish society that has ever existed that the observer would shrug their shoulders and question his sanity.

Suicide always needs to be considered as a political act. 

Suicide is never not a response to material conditions on the ground. When regimes of violence and neglect are dominant the abandonment of life itself is necessarily a statement that condemns those in power. It is a weapon of the weak, an arrow launched at the heart of empires, whether it be by public immolation or as a private affair. 

It would take many pages to offer a full accounting of the role of suicide in political struggles but it bears mentioning that it has been a last refuge of enslaved and colonized people throughout history. Less savory but undeniably political is the explosive sacrifice of the self committed by the suicide bomber. 

Despair is a political phenomenon that our modernist technocracy has thoroughly pathologized. When one is living in the best of all possible worlds any dissatisfaction is an indication of an organic disorder to be located in the faulty genes and poorly organized thought processes of the potential suicide. A three day stay in a psychiatric hospital, a fresh fistful of pills and a month of cognitive behavioral therapy should be sufficient to set the sufferer on the right track. And if this isn’t enough then it is a personal failing, not the inadequacy of the world that is to blame. 

If Mr. Buckel was despairing it was a despair born of love. He was living in the age of Trump, in which any progress made to ameliorate, remediate or adapt to climate change has been rolled back and the arms of government dedicated to managing the deluge of pollution that emerges from America are staffed with cynical ideologues situated deeply in the pockets of corporate interests . 

I think Mr. Buckel was more sane than most of us. In the face of the greatest manifestation of greed and foolishness in human history he burned against the tide. 

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