Self-immolation is a very profound and meaningful act. By definition, the word “immolation” is bound to the concept of sacrifice. When Tibetan monks do it is very fit to print. The New York Times has already run eight stories in 2013 on this topic.
But when it happens on the National Mall in broad daylight with a camera set up to film it, its fitness vanishes. This is what happened when John Constantino, a sixty-four year old black male from New Jersey, committed self-immolation, after a salute to the Capitol, on 10/4/13.
In the period from 10/4/13 to 10/14/13, there were close to 40 news stories in US media about the story, but none from the New York Times. Even then, the story was only covered by a small handful of publications on 10/4/13, including the Monterey County Herald and the Topeka Tribune.
The Los Angeles Times picked up the story on 10/5/13 along with the Daily News (NY), and the Bismarck Tribune. On 10/6/13 the Bangor Daily News thought it fit, as did the Hilltop, the student paper of Howard University.
On 10/8/13, Constantino’s family issued a statement through their lawyer Jeffrey Cox, who explained that, “His death was not a political act or statement, but the result of his long battle with mental illness.” After this non-political answer was provided, the path of easy, non-confrontational explanation to the event was opened and stories appeared in USA Today, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and even the student paper of Seattle University, The Spectator.
The story was even international, covered by the Qatar News Agency on 10/5/13, and the New Zealand Herald on 10/9/13. But still not the NYTimes.
Of much interest was Margaret Kimberley at Black Agenda Report on 10/9/13, “Freedom Rider: Aaron Alexis, Miriam Carey, and John Constantino”, writing, “All three of these people were black.”
As respectful as we must be of Constantino’s survivors, this was clearly a political act.
As Allison Kilkenny said of the story on the podcast Citizen Radio (although not in response to the family’s statement), “When you label someone mentally ill, it’s a way of silencing their grievances.”
What were Constantino’s grievances? Looking around at the USA of 2013, it is not difficult to hazard a guess or two. Whatever his self-immolation was a sacrifice for, we would do well to find it fit to find out.
Perhaps it is too harrowing to note that on the same day as John Constantino’s self-immolation on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a man in Islamabad, Pakistan attempted to commit the same act outside of the Supreme Court, but was stopped by police.