Thursday’s New York Times led with an article about the riots in Tunisia and the sudden overthrow of their government. It opened with the following:
TUNIS — Passions unleashed by the revolution in Tunisia resonated throughout the region on Monday as an Egyptian and a Mauritanian became the latest of six North Africans to set themselves on fire in an imitation of the self-immolation that set off the uprising here a month ago.
In Egypt, Abdo Abdel Moneim, a 50-year-old restaurant owner, poured a gallon of gasoline over his head and set himself ablaze outside the Parliament building on Monday morning in downtown Cairo. Around the same time in Mauritania, Yacoub Ould Dahoud was setting fire to himself in his parked car near Parliament in Nouakchott.
Self-immolation; the act of trying to kill yourself by setting yourself on fire. While this practice has gone on for centuries, most of the 533 recorded (successful) cases of it since 1960 have been political protests like the ones mentioned above.
This isn’t my first time thinking about self-immolation. I think about it almost every day. Back in 1998 in the midst of the troubles in Bosnia and the twin Russian and Asian financial crises, the front page of the New York Times ran the picture posted here of a Parisian protesting the treatment of the Bosnians at the hands of the Serbs. Now (obviously) yellowed with time, the photo sits framed on my desk for daily contemplation. (Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find the actual photo in the Times’ online archive. If anyone can find it, I’d appreciate seeing it.)
I was facing some particularly tough days back in 1998. The international financial crisis had hit one of my clients and their deal particularly hard and it posed questions that none of us had ever faced before. There were long nights, tense conversations and a lack of clarity on what was likely to happen next and what we should do about it. But that particular morning, I looked at the picture and wondered, “How bad of a day must you be having when lighting yourself on fire is the preferred course of action?” The guy figured that all the other forms of protest were somehow inadequate to buying the gasoline and matches (and not wearing his fire-resistant jammies). I have never been that pissed off and pray that I never will.
It made me realize something that has since become something of a mantra for me.
No matter how bad of a day I have, it will never be so bad that lighting myself on fire will seem like a good alternative.