A Desperate Measure

On November 3, Malachi Ritscher, an avid chronicler of Chicago’s
underground music scene, burned himself to death alongside a
Chicago expressway. Next to him was a note that read, ‘Thou Shalt
Not Kill.’ As Peter Margasak reported in his
Chicago Reader
, Ritscher left a lengthier suicide note (which he called a
‘mission statement’)
posted on his website. In it, he elaborated on
his motives: ‘If one death can atone for anything, in any small
way, to say to the world: I apologize for what we have done to you,
I am ashamed for the mayhem and turmoil caused by my country.’

Self-immolation has a loaded history as a form of protest.
Perhaps most famous and most startling is the image of a Vietnamese
monk calmly aflame in the lotus position, protesting religious
oppression in Vietnam in 1963. Two years later, an American Quaker
named Norman Morrison lit himself on fire in front of the Pentagon
in protest of the Vietnam War. His daughter Emily, not yet
one-year-old, was there with him. As his wife, Anne Morrison Welsh,
recounted in the January 2000
Winds of Peace (pdf file) newsletter, when
news of his act reached Vietnam, the people there found a hero in

Though news of Ritscher’s act seems not to have generated such
widespread reflection, it has stirred strong emotions in Chicago,
especially among those frequenting the venues and protests where he
was a regular fixture. One immediate response has been to cast the
act as one of either a martyr or a mentally ill person. ‘I’m not so
sure the two things are mutually exclusive,’ responded Chicago
Richard Roeper. As for the impact of the
act, Roeper tried to respectfully offer this assessment: ‘[I]f
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

In a thoughtful essay for
Pitchfork, Nitsuh Abebe parses such
sentiments, arguing that they miss the greater point: that
Ritscher’s suicide is ‘a piece of very shocking evidence that
some of the people around us feel very hurt and marginalized.’
Regardless of what one makes of Ritscher’s death, there is no
contesting the tragedy of it. ‘Interpretation of the act might
be up in the air,’ Abebe notes, ‘but the one thing just about
everyone agrees on is the wish that he hadn’t done it.’

Go there >>
Malachi Ritschers Apparent Suicide

Go there too >>
Norman Morrison, Deed of Life, Deed of

Go there too >>
Act by ‘Martyr’ to Protest War in Iraq a Futile

Go there too >>
Malachi Ritscher, 1954-2006

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