A few weeks ago, I wrote about Malachi Ritscher who immolated himself on the side of expressway in Chicago. I made this assessment:
“Only time will tell whether the blogosphere takes his self-immolating act and runs with it on the heels of ‘martyrdom.’”
I wasn’t off-base. Ritscher lit himself on fire on Friday, November 3. By Friday, November 10, Jennifer Diaz of Chicago set up a site called I heard you, Malachi in honor of his self-immolating act to bring attention to the war in Iraq.
The Pagan Science Monitor has a discussion going on about “Was Malachi Ritscher crazy?” It also had previous discussions on “A martyr for peace: Malachi Ritscher.” Much of the argument seems to be that Ritscher’s act shouldn’t bring attention to mental illness but should, rather, focus on that which he intended for it to do: shift attention to the injustice of the war in Iraq. While I understand that what he did was a symbolic gesture, it has left the few of us who got wind of the story scratching our heads, wondering, “What in the … ?!”
As of 11:12 PM on Saturday, December 16, there are only 105,000 hits for Malachi Ritscher through Google search. My prediction is that number will continue to increase as the blogosphere catches wind of what he did and makes a decision on whether he was a true hero and a true psycho.
The act of immolation is widely misunderstood in the United States. During the Vietnam War, Buddhist monks lit themselves on fire as act of protest against the war. According to Buddhist teaching, this act is not considered suicide. Famed Buddhist teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh had this to say about one Buddhist who immolated himself:
“The press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors, and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance…. The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people…. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, that is, to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people. This is not suicide.”
Not an” act of destruction” but one of “construction.” Hmm. I don’t see how self-immolation constructs anything good.
Ritscher performed his act in the hopes of bringing NATIONAL – perhaps even international – attention to the war in Iraq and the suffering of citizens there. Ritscher, an anti-war activist who had been arrested more than once, apparently seems to think he was performing “an act of construction” but ironically, left behind a suicide note. He also left a sign by his charred body that read, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” The sign was probably meant to send a signal to the White House about Iraq but seems ironically fitting for a man, who in essence, killed himself.
Debated heated up in the comments section of the Chicago Reader blog, where the story was originally posted. Many of Ritscher’s family members posted, sisters and brothers – even his ex-wife (Shannon?), but the most telling comment is from his son whose real name is Malachi (his father’s was Mark):
“Disowned (Malachi Ritscher)
November 10th – 5:35 p.m.
Of all the people on this world :I know my father.
How dare you presume to know anything about our relationship! Where were you during the intervening time? Did you live with and love a schizophrenic for 35 years? Did you EVER come by for dinner? Did you ever even contact me on purpose?
You called me once on accident.
I tried once to reconcile with my father. In Feb 2003, after calling and calling, I tried a blind email to his website. He sent me a letter in reply indicating he wasn’t ready. DID YOU HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH THAT?
Did you even talk to your parents or sister and discuss how I had dinner with them Oct 30th 2006 and I agreed to try reconciling with Dad again?
DID YOU CALL ME WHEN MY FATHER DIED?
WHERE WERE YOU WHEN HE DIED IF YOU WERE SUCH A GOOD FRIEND?
You have not been ‘around’ for any part of his adult life. You spoke to him on the phone (only in the last few years) and saw him maybe 3 times. How many times do you think he mentioned any conversations with his family to me? NONE.
How many YEARS did you live with his schizophrenia? NONE.
What right do you have to say anything about our relationship or attack me?
In the end he was still my father and I was just giving him time to get over his anger.
In my heart I am still a little boy and he is my hero.
I love you father,
Malachi 5 Ritscher”
Paul and Ellen Ritscher, presumably Mark’s siblings, seem to side with Mark’s act and their words seem to express understanding as to why he did it. Malachi calls his father a schizophrenic and Mark admits to regret for not killing Donald Rumsfeld when he supposedly had the chance. If Mark David Ritscher heard voices and was homicidal, the man had a mental illness whether or not it was clinically diagnosed. Later on in the discussion, Malachi (under the name of Disowned) refers to his father as “needing a reason” to commit suicide. Mark Ritscher even admits to choosing his own death: “My position is that I only get one death, I want it to be a good one.” Mark’s family (sans Mark’s son), however, denies the likelihood of mental illness:
“As a family we are not aware of Malachi having a clinical diagnosis of mental illness. And we hesitate to attach Medical Doctor (MD) to our names by calling Malachi’s state of mind/being something which requires a medical assessment. However, it does seem apparent to us that some sort of depression was part of his life, at least occasionally, for a number of years.”
Dictionary.com‘s definition of suicide: the intentional taking of one’s own life. The definition of homicidal? Having a tendency to commit homicide (the intentional taking of someone ELSE’s life). More on mental illness can be found at reference.com.
Mark David (Malachi) Ritscher didn’t want to be known as a martyr or a terrorist; he preferred to be remembered as a “spiritual warrior,” according to his self-penned obituary. However, there was nothing spiritual or noble in what Ritscher did. Mark Ritscher will gain an underground Internet cult following, most prominently in Chicago and its music scene where Ritscher was most active, but beyond that, Ritscher’s act has little significance on America’s foreign policy. It may move a few people around the country to anti-war activism but not enough to change the course of the war at this time. Ritscher chose to die in flames and suffer as a gesture to the Iraqi people who are currently suffering, but “his last gesture on the planet was his saddest and his most futile.”
While the act of immolation is misunderstood in the U.S., the consensus among American society is this: It is not sane; it is not normal and it is NOT okay.
Perhaps major media outlets chose not to pick up this story for fear of copycat self-immolation protests. This is the major reason why suicides by ordinary citizens are rarely, if ever, reported.
My fear is that Mark David Ritscher chose to leave this life by dying in flames and enter eternity in enternal flames.