Dying So Others Will Live

“I’ve no doubt he wanted his actions viewed optimistically. He wanted this to be viewed as a positive act of love for the planet. I have no doubt in his mind he believed what he was doing was a way to effect positive change.”

-Marisa DeDominicis, executive director of Earth Matter NY, on the self immolation death of David Buckel, quoted from The Guardian

On April 14th David Buckel, who I’ve never met or even heard of, took his life as a protest against climate disruption and environmental degradation caused by fossil fuels. In an email to the NY Times right before he set himself on fire, he said: “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result – my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”

According to news sources, he was passionate about the environment. In his last years he worked effectively to develop a composting project at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Prior to that he had a long history of fighting for causes he believed in. He was a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society and Lambda Legal, and he helped to win important legal victories for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

As far as I know, this is the first death of a U.S. American by self immolation since the deaths of five people during the 1960’s in protest of the Vietnam war—Alice Herz, Norman Morrison, Roger Allen LaPorte, Florence Beaumont and Ronald Brazee.

I hope there are no more self immolation deaths. It is not a tactic I would ever suggest to anyone or encourage them to consider.

However, I fully understand why, in the world we are living in today, someone who gets it on what is happening to our severely wounded planet, its people and all of its life forms, and who wants to do something about it, would consider it.

I’ve never considered self-immolation, but more than once I’ve taken action that involved the risk of serious injury or even death. For example, in 1972, I took part in what became a 40-day, water-only hunger strike to try to stop the Vietnam War.

When a group of us gathered in Dan Berrigan’s apartment in June of 1972 for the first meeting which discussed this idea, it was proposed by Dan as a “fast unto death.” The idea was that those taking part in this action would drink only water and resolve not to come off it until some to-be-specified action(s) was taken. In this way we would be dramatizing via our wasting-away bodies the suffering the people of Indochina were undergoing every day.

I responded positively to this idea, and I know why. I had been raised by parents who took Christianity seriously, and they imparted to me the best of that tradition. This included respect and love for Jesus of Nazareth, who risked and lost his life because of his deep commitment to resistance against oppression and a very different way that human beings should interact and human society should be organized, with Higher Love at the center.

I kept a journal during these 40 days. On day 10 I wrote, “My attitude toward the death aspect of the fast wavers. At times I see myself going that route [fasting unto death]. At others, no. I want to live. I see new worlds and new experiences opening up from this action. I want to be around for a long time. Yet I want the war to end even more strongly. This is why I am doing this. . .”

On day 26 I wrote, “I find myself going deeper and deeper into this fast; that is, feeling more and more like it will end up going the whole way. I feel committed at this point to going that route if it seems necessary and if the course of events does not change. Perhaps by our deaths we will be able to do what the Germans in the ‘30s did not bring themselves to do. What would have been the effect if a number of them had allowed themselves to die in protest of the crimes and direction of Hitler?”

I’ve believed for a long time, based on my understanding of human nature and my reading of history, that fundamental social change doesn’t happen unless a growing number of people are willing to take risks and endure suffering for the cause. Every major revolution that has occurred, almost all of which have involved the use of guns, has involved people willing to risk death and actually dying,

I don’t see an armed revolution happening in the US, but I see and am working for a nonviolent one. In that nonviolent revolution some of us will be hurt, spend a lot of time behind bars and/or die. All of those things have already happened. It’s not a revolution if those things don’t happen, given the strength of violent and regressive ideas and political forces in the USA.

I don’t think that anyone should emulate David Buckel, but I think that all of us should meditate seriously on what we are doing, or not, with our lives to bring about the fundamental changes so desperately needed. This is the best way we can honor his disturbing but very real sacrifice for others.

Ted Glick has been a progressive activist and organizer since 1968. Past writings and other information can be found at http://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on twitter at http://twitter.com/jtglick.