A very sad and disturbing Washington Post story recalls a young Quaker activist who fifty yeas ago set himself afire at the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War. Horribly he was clutching his baby daughter, who fortunately escaped and lives today. He left behind a wife and two other small children. Pentagon personnel urgently tried to save him from the flames, to no avail.
Apparently the Quaker modeled himself on some Buddhist monks in South Vietnam who self immolated in the early 1960s to protest alleged discrimination by the regime of President Diem, a Catholic. Photos of the protest suicides appeared in U.S. media, undermining public support here for Diem, and ultimately prompting JFK to green light a South Vietnamese military coup against Diem. JFK was evidently surprised and upset when Diem and his brother were murdered in the coup.
South Vietnam arguably never recovered from Diem’s fall, suffering years of revolving door governments. None of Diem’s successors had his strength or nationalist credentials. Ironically, when North Vietnam finally conquered the South and imposed an atheist regime, the Buddhists, along with other religionists and most everybody else, suffered terribly, far more than under Diem. But there were no Western media filming self immolating Buddhist monks under Communism.
The Quaker who killed himself, and nearly his infant daughter, in 1965 was probably mentally deranged. To the extent he was insane and not fully responsible for his dreadful act, God rest his soul. To the extent he was morally aware, his suicide, near murder of his daughter, endangerment of passersby who tried to save him, and abandonment of his wife and young children were all quite despicable. He was no hero on any level, although he was honored by North Vietnam and some anti war zealots. Was he very much different from a current day Islamist suicide bomber?
Quakerism can’t be faulted for his suicide. Unlike some forms of radical Islam, it of course doesn’t advocate protest by self destruction. Yet Quakerism’s political witness over last 50 years or more has been and continues to be quite absurd. Through official groups like the American Friends Service Committee, it chronically slams American foreign policy and Israel but is serenely silent about all despotic regimes around the world. Nary a Quaker word about the imprisoned and tortured in North Korea, Iran, or anywhere else. Victims of those regimes evidently don’t merit Quaker concern.
Although always pacifist, Quakerism’s political witness wasn’t always so hypocritical. During the Civil War, instead of angry protests, Quakers prayed with President Lincoln. Maybe Quaker officials should start praying more and protesting/lobbying less.
No photos exist of the 1965 Quaker’s self immolation outside the Pentagon. But there are plenty of photos of the South Vietnamese Buddhist monks self immolating themselves in the streets of Saigon over 50 years ago. Their misplaced religious zeal helped pave the way for calamity for millions. May we learn from those tragic days.