Something transformational is happening at this moment — something that has happened repeatedly across the globe and which as a phenomenon merits deep reflection.

What is happening? A society is once again being galvanized by someone who, in a moment of desperation, publicly attempted to destroy oneself. In this case, it was an Israeli man, Moshe Silman, who set himself ablaze at the conclusion of Saturday night’s massive social justice march in Tel Aviv (and whose life hangs in the balance).

The act, a political symbol of despair and powerlessness Silman executed by claiming the only thing over which he had power — his body — has spontaneously galvanized the country. Last night, thousands of protesters blockaded government buildings and blocked major highways across Israel, chanting, “We are Moshe Silman!

Protest in solidarity with Moshe Silman, Tel Aviv, Israel, 15.7.2012

Protesters block Tel Aviv's Ayalon Highway in solidarity with Silman.

Anger and disgust in the country is palpable. Numerous public officials, sensing the moment’s potential power, have felt compelled to comment on this “national tragedy.” And Silman’s suicide note, which was handed to fellow protesters before he lit himself (and which blames the government for his economic despair and the despair of the working poor in Israel) has become an iconic document representing the country’s pervasive societal inequalities.

Of course, Silman’s self-immolation reverberates loudly in the shadow of the political suicide which sparked Tunisia’s revolution and essentially sparked revolts across the Arab world. Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire to protest various humiliating indignities visited upon him by municipal officials. His death sparked such widespread and angry protests that, less than a month later, Tunisia’s President, Zine El Abidine (who had ruled for 23 years) was forced to step down.

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Hunger strikes that reach critical stages. Self-immolations. These are, at their core, simply forms of suicide.

Yet, consider this: at a time in which Israel has been rocked by Silman’s self-immolation, suicides (at a rate of 400 per year) go largely unnoticed. Sure, some may be mentioned in passing on the news, but overall they occur in the shadows.

Similarly, here in the United States, suicide rates for military personnel, which has risen to an average of one per day, have eclipsed the rate of combat fatalities. And yet, aside from footnotes in mainstream outlets, are citizens marching in the streets or raising their fists to a government largely responsible for their deaths? No.

However, during the Vietnam War era, several self-immolations by U.S. citizens played significant roles in sparking and sustaining anti-war protests. The first to set himself ablaze was a deeply spiritual Quaker named Norman Morrison, who self-immolated outside the Pentagon underneath Secretary of Defense Robert McNamera’s window to protest the war’s inhumanity.

In Errol Morris’ Fog of War, McNamera emotionally declines to talk about how profoundly the self-immolation affected both him and his family, but he wrote about the suicide’s profundity in his memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. He also wrote:

“Morrison’s death was a tragedy not only for his family but also for me and the country. It was an outcry against the killing that was destroying the lives of so many Vietnamese and American youth. … I believe I understood and shared some of his thoughts.”

Consider this: he called Morrison’s death — a suicide, in essence — a national tragedy. And yet, while we all may find military suicides in particular and suicides in general to be a deeply tragic phenomenon, has a public figure ever called the non-political suicide of an individual citizen a national tragedy?

I couldn’t find such an instance.

Obviously, there are intentional distinctions to be made between one who, suffering gravely emotionally, chooses to end his or her life in the shadows and one who, also suffering gravely, chooses to transform their suicide into a public display of resistance.

The former, we can ignore, and often do, both because they happen quietly and because it disrupts our placid states to consider them.

However, with the latter, we have no choice. We cannot ignore them, for hunger strikes and self-immolations occur in broad view, and are targeted directly at us, demanding to be considered. And because we cannot ignore them, because there is something simultaneously perverted and profoundly moving about such acts of self-destruction, we are forced to acquiesce to the demand and consider them.

And what we see reflected back to us is the unspeakable desperation of the powerless. We see a human symbol of all that is wrong, and all that must be reparied.

And that vision has, at times, driven people into the streets, toppled governments and forced leaders to chance public policies.

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Another example with which I’m intimately familiar: Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories have long suffered from Israel’s policy of indefinitely detaining people without charge or trial for months and years at a time. (Overall, thousands of Palestinians have been detained administratively without charge or evidence brought against them).

And while protests were organized against this practice and the general treatment of those detained, they were largely small and ineffective. However, recently, Palestinians began going on hunger strikes to protest this policy and their treatment while being detained.

The result? When a Palestinian, Khader Adnan, reached a point of extreme danger, massive public protests erupted and international pressure was generated as people began to compare Adnan to Bobby Sands (the I.R.A. prisoner who died after a hunger strike).

Solidarity with Prisoner Khader Adnan, Ziv Hospital, Safed, Israel, 15.2.2012

Palestinians rally in solidarity with Adnan on February 15, 2012.

On the 66th day, Israel pledged to release Adnan from administrative detention if he would just do one thing: eat.

An act of self-destruction as resistance, as a political statement, had backed a governing coalition into a corner.

That is power.

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The people who engage in these acts have, themselves, been backed into a corner. They are powerless. They are suffering deeply — whether emotionally, financially, physically or spiritually.

So what is it, exactly, that causes societies which largely ignore the plight of suicide to become inspired and moved to action by the likes of Silman, Bouazizi, Morrison and Adnan? Is it a sense of responsibility? Is it rage? Is it a strange form of inspiration brought on by one willing to die to highlight the injustices many of us face?

It’s an unanswerable question, really. Though it’s a question that remains as Israel waits for Silman’s fate and the region continues to shift in the wake created by Bouazizi’s public death.

Follow me on Twitter @David_EHG.


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