You may have heard or read of the guy who landed his gyrocopter in front of the U.S. Capitol earlier this month in order to make a statement in favor of campaign finance reform. You may also have heard of the incident a little while earlier in which a man stood in front of the Capitol and shot himself to death. We still know little about this man apart from his name and home. His name was Leo Thornton and his statement was also political in nature. Witnesses report that Thornton carried a sign reading, "Tax the 1%" or something to that effect. It's easy to dismiss such a man as a hopeless, tragic nut -- until you recall how suicide can change things elsewhere in the world. Suicide has been a form of political protest for some time now. Americans first noticed it when South Vietnamese monks set themselves on fire in the Sixties. In Czechoslovakia, after the Soviets snuffed the Prague Spring, at least one Czech made a similar statement against oppression. In our time, the most famous protest suicide is Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation in 2011 is credited with triggering the "Arab Spring" movement. Whatever the results elsewhere, Bouazizi's own country is considered a success story so far. My question is: why shouldn't Bouazizi have been dismissed as a disgruntled nut, as Thornton is dismissed by almost everyone in the U.S.? It can be noted that Bouazizi, a street vendor, had suffered oppression directly at the hands of his government, while we still know too little about Thornton to determine whether he had a direct, personal grievance against the U.S. government or the social order. In some ways, a better American analogue for Bouazizi, though not a suicide, might be Eric Garner, the man who died after cops choked him out for allegedly selling "loosie" cigarettes. Garner's death helped spark a social movement, but would we know him today if he had killed himself over his harassment by the cops? It seems unlikely. It may be that suicide is less immediately associated with mental illness outside the western world. If Bouazizi killed himself because he could no longer stand the way his government treated him, fellow Tunisians apparently were more inclined to think that proved something was wrong with the government, while Americans may more likely assume that something is wrong with the man who kills himself to protest something.
Tunisia is considered a more democratic country today than it was when Bouazizi killed himself, but in a way it may already have been more democratic than some self-proclaimed democracies. Democracy is a slippery concept that tends to get mixed up with ideas like "representative government" and "rule of law," whether all these ideas are compatible or not. Part of the idea of democracy, everyone would agree, is that everyone can have a say in government, even if your only real say is voting for a representative to legislate for you. A corollary notion is that anyone in a democracy can make a difference. Tunisia had a democratic moment when Bouazizi's suicide made a difference. Does that mean the U.S. is less democratic because Thornton's suicide won't make a difference? I'm not sure. It doesn't follow from our democratic ideals that everyone will make a difference, after all. It's also up to the people as a whole to decide what someone's suicide means. Tunisians responded emphatically and empathetically to Bouazizi's suicide, while Americans could be excused for thinking that higher tax rates for the rich is a poor cause to kill yourself for in the absence of information about Thornton's own plight. But leaving Thornton's particulars out for a moment, let's imagine again a suicidal Eric Garner, one who suffered what the real man suffered but survived only to decide he couldn't take it anymore. How would Americans respond? Would we even have heard of him? If we can't imagine Americans seeing anyone's suicide as proof of social injustice, then on some level we as a people, let alone our system of government, may be less democratic than the Tunisian masses who responded to Bouazizi's death. On some level the Tunisians respected him, as an individual and a citizen, more than Americans could respect any counterpart here. That doesn't mean that Thornton should have been an American Bouazizi, but if you can't imagine an American Bouazizi, that may not be a good thing for us.