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Opinion

The men who set themselves on fire

Due to joblessness and a bleak economy, self-immolations in industrialised societies are rising rapidly.

Last Modified: 07 Oct 2013 15:43
Sarah Kendzior

Sarah Kendzior is St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.
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"In authoritarian states ruled by tyrants, in democracies allegedly ruled by law, we find the same result: hard-working people let down by the systems which are supposed to support them", writes Sarah Kendzior [Reuters]

On October 4, a man poured gasoline over his body and set himself on fire in Washington DC. He committed suicide in the National Mall, the open-air park surrounded by national museums and monuments, now closed due to the government shutdown.

Witnesses say he had set up a tripod to film his self-immolation. They say that before he killed himself he was yelling about voting rights. The man on fire was black. In June, the US Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Amendment, proclaiming racial discrimination a thing of the past.

Now it is the government that is struck down, paralysed by vindictive partisanship while its most  vulnerable citizens suffer.

As I write this, no one knows who the man was or why he did it. But his act is not unique. He joins a long list of men who have self-immolated since the global financial collapse and subsequent austerity. Around the world, men are setting themselves on fire because they cannot find work.

This is happening in the world's richest and poorest nations, in its allegedly stable democracies and in its most ruthless dictatorships. The men who do this are young and old, of all races and religions, united only by their joblessness and their despair.

In the UK, an unemployed 48-year-old man set himself on fire outside a job centre after not receiving a needed payment. In Morocco, a group of young law students, belonging to a group called " Unemployed Graduates", set themselves on fire after not finding work. In Spain, a man burnt himself alive because he did not have enough money for food. In Greece, a 55-year-old man set himself on fire after screaming that he was in debt. In Bulgaria, several unemployed men self-immolated after condemning graft and corruption. In France, over a dozen people  - both French nationals and immigrants, from different occupations and social classes - set themselves on fire because they could not find jobs.

This is a partial list. Unemployed men have self-immolated in Germany, Iraq, Jordan, China, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. Many cases receive little media attention. The week before the man burned himself alive on the National Mall, a man in a business suit tried to set himself on fire in Houston, Texas, after telling passersby that he could not find a job.

Unemployment is not only the loss of a job. It is the loss of dignity. It is the loss of the present and, over time, the ability to imagine a future.

The case did not make the national news. The government shut down four days later, pushing another 800,000 people out of work.

It's the austerity, stupid

Unemployment is not only the loss of a job. It is the loss of dignity. It is the loss of the present and, over time, the ability to imagine a future. It is hopelessness and shame, an open struggle everyone witnesses but pretends not to see. It is a social and political crisis we tell a man to solve, and blame him when he cannot.

When you are unemployed, your past is dismissed as unworthy. Your future is denied. Self-immolation is making yourself, in the moment, matter.

The most famous recent case of an unemployed man setting himself on fire was Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose actions are said to have spurred the Arab Spring revolutions. When Bouazizi killed himself in December 2010, the youth unemployment rate was 30 percent in Tunisia and 25 percent in Egypt, where uprisings quickly followed.

In Spain, three years later, youth unemployment is 57 percent. In Greece, it is 64 percent. The youth unemployment rate is 23.5 percent for the combined European Union and 16 percent for the United States, a statistic which does not take into account the millions whose jobs do not pay enough to take them out of poverty. The youth unemployment rates of Western nations now mirror or surpass those of the Arab world before the uprisings.

When Bouazizi self-immolated, the case was initially covered as an act of economic desperation. Only after it triggered a mass outcry was it acknowledged as a political statement, a final stand against decades of corruption and autocracy. It is pointless to ask whether the self-immolation of an unemployed man is an economic or political act: the two are inseparable.

The knowledge of their inseparability is in part what inspires these men to act. One can call it austerity or one can call it apathy, but the end result is that states are letting their citizens die - slowly and silently in poverty, or publicly in flame.

As journalist Kevin Drum observes, in every previous recession, government spending rose. In this recession, they cut benefits, food stamps, jobs. They cut and blame us when we bleed.

In authoritarian states ruled by tyrants, in democracies allegedly ruled by law, we find the same result: hard-working people let down by the systems which are supposed to support them. When the most you can ask from your society is that it will spare you, you have no society of which to speak.

In every country with massive unemployment - which is, increasingly, every country - citizens see the loss of a functioning social contract, and the apathy with which that loss is received.

The suffering silent

"Rome wasn't built in a day," the saying goes. "But it was burned in one."

Today Rome does not burn - its stocks continue to rise, its wealthy continue to profit. Rome does not burn. Only its victims do.

For every person who sets himself on fire there are millions suffering in silence. For every person who becomes a symbol, there are millions who watch quietly, in shock and resignation, resigned to our shock, shocked by our deference.

Self-immolation has long been an act of protest against corrupt and tyrannical rule: Tibetans against the Chinese, Czechoslovakians against the Soviets. The difference between these acts of protest and the unemployed men on fire is that today we are not sure who is in charge.

The US government, after all, cannot even govern itself. State attempts at improving social welfare are trumped not by public will or political disagreement but by what appears to be a preplanned, funded attempt by fringe conservatives to shut the government down.

In every country with massive unemployment - which is, increasingly, every country - citizens see the loss of a functioning social contract, and the apathy with which that loss is received.

We do not know the identity of the man on fire. We do not know what prompted him to kill himself in open view in the nation's capital. We know he was a man who died. That should be enough. In every act of agony, that should be enough.

Sarah Kendzior is a St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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