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The Immolation of Malachi Ritscher

malachi ritschermalachi ritscherNew Media Artist Kanarinka posted on the Netbehaviour list about Malachi Ritscher's act of self immolation in protest of the Iraq War in Chicago on Nov. 3rd, 2006. He burned himself to death on the side of the Kennedy Expressway near downtown Chicago during the morning rush hour. He was a part of the arts and music community, and people who knew him told me that he was quiet and affable, but did not seem a person who would "go that far". Malachi was one of fewer than ten US citizens to protest in such a way, and it barely brought a blip on the radar.

Last month after we had an art lecturer at our department at Columbia Chicago, we went out to dinner, and a couple of us had known Malachi for years (not me, however - I'm new to the town.)

A couple notes here.
First, I'm pretty appalled with myself to say that I've had to focus really hard in order to manage adapting to a large city. Therefore, I mentioned over dinner that I'm not sure what I would have done, had I seen him in flames. However, I think it's pretty obvious that I could have written about it, and therein lies the disconnect in American culture, and that gives me pause.

It's like when the Drexel Building burned down across the street before my eyes (8-story, 1887 Louis Sullivan construction, 5-11 fire!). Somehow it just seemed unreal, and I sat there in my office, watching the sheet of flame and smoke stream off the leading edge of the building while firefighters fought the blaze. I stayed there until we were evacuated; I knew I was in a lot of danger, but somehow didn't feel it viscerally.

My question is whether others felt this way too, and from an individual response, that might be part of the answer. I'm not proud of it and feel unbelievably callous, but his death deserves honesty from those in his city who were on the sidelines.

Another perspective is that of Richard Roeper at the Chicago Tribune, who said that, "...with all great respect, if he thought setting himself on fire and ending his life in Chicago would change anyone's mind about the war in Iraq, his last gesture on this planet was his saddest and his most futile." There may be another key element - a real cynicism about simple acts of direct dissent and their effectiveness. As an extended member of a high profile activist group, the goal is often the press, and the effectiveness of the act seems to be left to the public zeitgeist.

From a larger media-institutional standpoint, there's the implication that these things "don't happen here", right? America (an odd principle in itself, in that the US does not constitute the continent), is the "greatest country in the world", "Land of the Free", and "Home of the Brave", and why-the-hell-would- anyone-set-themselves-on-fire-over-anything-we're-doing, right? It makes sense that there would be more press on O'J' Simpson's semi-fictional murder book ( ;) ) than Malachi.

But here's the most disturbing thing - in a period when the US media seems to be looking for any port in a storm for the criticism of the Iraq War, _why_ didn't they latch onto this with the tenacity of a pit bull? It's so completely bizarre, more bizarre that if I had driven by the fireball, numbed by the city and the American "will to productivity", having to process it before reacting.

So I guess the question is why people don't care more about Malachi? Now that I've had the time to reflect on it, I think his death is one of the most important events to have happened in the city in 2006, and deserves being told again, and again, and again.

How can anyone not be mortally touched when someone has the will to voice their convictions so forcefully? I'm meditating on this, and Hope people have a response.

There are great links on Malachi here.

Thank you...

I'm a first time commenter on this site, mainly because today is the first time I've heard about this heroic mans actions!! First I want to say that I am not capable myself of doing something like this, but I hope..and I pray that he gets the attention he wanted! This war is wrong for every reason that was ever given to us...Troops are dying needlessly over there without so much as a grave apology from the President or his staff...But the bigger why the media as a whole have largely ignored this story!! This mans act and wish to show the country that we are not without beliefs!! He believed in what he was doing was the only way to end his suffering, and show that he was willing to pay the ultimate price to get his point across needs to be honored and commended!! He felt disillusioned with his country...our government..and many of the people who live here have forgotten about those that are suffering right here!! The homeless...the poor...the uneducated!! The drug problem in this country..All of these problems need to be addressed!! So I am thankful that I have heard about such an amazing act of unselfishness!!