On this day in 1965 — exactly 50 years ago — Roger Allen LaPorte set himself on fire in front of the Dag Hammarskjold Library at the United Nations. He was part of the Catholic Worker Movement, and he was protesting the Vietnam War. He did not die immediately. He was taken to the Bellevue Hospital where he died the following day. He had 2nd and 3rd degree burns on 95% of his body. Of his act, he said, “I’m a Catholic Worker. I’m against war, all wars. I did this as a religious action.” He was 22 years old.
I’ve long had a fascination with Thích Quảng Đức — the first Vietnamese Buddhist to similarly kill himself in protest against the Diệm regime. Many monks followed in his wake. I did not, however, know that there were people in the United States who did the same thing — although regarding the war and not the Diệm government. On 16 March 1965, Alice Herz set herself on fire to protest the war. She died ten days later. And exactly a week before LaPorte’s act, Norman Morrison burned himself to death at the Pentagon.
Nothing terrifies me like fire. So these acts have a profound effect on me. I admire the commitment of these people. At the same time, I think they are insane. Regardless, they are appropriate. They are an interesting contrast to those who murder in the name of saving unborn babies. Murder in the name of stopping murder does not make sense to me. But setting oneself on fire to show how strongly you feel about something is at least coherent. And I salute that.