Why? Why why why why why why why why?
It is a question we often don't ask because we do not know the answer. Or we're afraid of the answer Or can't handle the answer? Don't trust the answer?
In June 1963 a Bhuddist monk sat down in the middle of a busy intersection in Saigon, South Viet Nam, and set himself on fire. A photographer was there as well as David Halberstam of the New York Times and a few other journalists. I was eleven at the time and I do not know if it ever entered my mind to ask, "Why would somebody do this?" but that image made an impression on me.
Why would a person do a thing like this? First, you must understand that he was not just a person. He was a human being with a name. He was Thích Quảng Đức, and his act was a protest against the religious persecution the Buddhists were experiencing at the hands of Viet Nam dictator Ngo Dinh Diem. The U.S. government liked Diem because he was anti-communist, killing and torturing them while consolidating his own power. Because of this, U.S. leaders averted their eyes when Diem also raided Buddhist pagodas and treated the monks badly.
Growing up I understood none of this. But then again, the U.S. newspapers only gave us a photo, which seared into our minds without having a full meaning. Thich Quang Duc's friends, however, understood the meaning of his act. They were there. One even offered to sacrifice himself in Thich Quang Duc's place.
The last words of Thích Quảng Đức before his self-immolation were documented in a letter he had left:
Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dinh Diem to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organise in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.
David Halberstam, the Pullitzer Prize-winning journalist who covered the conflict in Viet Nam and the civil rights movement among other things, wrote:
I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think... As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.
Americans may not have grasped it, but President Diem understood the significance of this act. Or more importantly, he grasped what it meant when the journalists shone a light on what was happening there in Viet Nam. Before the year ended, his own power was cut off and he, too, was dead.
It is a powerful thing when people are willing to die for their convictions.
Source for details of this story: Wikipedia