On November 9, 1965, at the age of 22, Roger LaPorte set himself on fire in front of the United Nations building in New York City to protest the Vietnam War. He was a former seminarian and a member of the Catholic Worker Movement. Despite his burns, he remained conscious and able to speak at the hospital. When asked why he set himself on fire, La Porte replied, “I’m a Catholic Worker. I’m against war, all wars. I did this as a religious action.” La Porte died the next day
It is hard for most people to comprehend such an act of self-destruction putatively for a higher cause.Obviously Laporte like many Americans was appalled at the fire engulfing ordinary Vietnamese at this time—all supported by US tax dollars and a misguided militarist adventure. Laporte obviously was a highly sensitive person who deeply felt the unmerited suffering of those he considered family. Laporte looked around and saw virtually no rejection of the US appalling assault on the Vietnamese which took over 1 million civilian lives. His own catholic church was virtually mute. we will never know what his thinking was even though we shudder at his actions.
Yet Laporte was not alone.
Two years earlier On June 11, 1963, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, immolated himself at a Saigon intersection to protest Buddhist persecution by its Catholic president and US proxy Ngo Dinh Diem.
There were others too.
On March 16,1965 an 82 year old Jewish-American pacifist Alice Herz went the same route.
The most shocking was the self-immolation of Norman Morrison a 31 year old Quaker from Washington, D.C. Standing outside the office of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Morrison handed his 1 year old daughter Emily to a bystander he torched himself. His wife said that [S]he was a powerful symbol of the children we were killing with our bombs and napalm–who didn’t have parents to hold them in their arms.”
That amazing Catholic pacifist Fr.Charlie McCarthy wonders why Laporte has been forgotten.
Thich Quang Duc, is revered by Vietnamese Buddhists as a bodhisattva (saint), the intersection where he set himself afire has a monument and park dedicated to him and his intact heart is preserved as a relic of the spirit of compassion in a glass chalice. Alice Herz, who was also a refugee from Nazi Germany, has a plaza named after her in Berlin. Shingo Shibata, the Japanese philosopher, established the Alice Herz Peace Fund in her memory. Norman Morrison has a road named after him in the Vietnamese city of Da Nang. In Hanoi a street is named after him and the Government of Vietnam has issued a postage stamp in his honor. An HBO film about him has been made and poems and books have been written about him. Roger LaPorte’s charred dry bones lay in the ground of section 1, row 11 of Saint Alphonsus Cemetery in Tupper Lake, NY. —long dead, long gone and long forgotten.
By political and ecclesial necessity and arrangement the warriors, dead or alive, are fawned over, but the billions of non-warriors they maimed and destroyed must be kept out of sight, out of mind and out of memory, lest they reveal the immensity of the evil the honored warriors and their honorable puppet masters, have done to fellow human beings, who did them no harm and who intended to do nothing harmful to them. In other words the non-warrior victims of the warrior heroes must be expunged from history, must become as if they never existed, or if they existed were of no worth. The victorious warriors and their controllers, who carefully manage the memory of the past, so as to assure that in the future the young will experience being used as violent and lethal warriors as nobly heroic, must drown them in the vastness of time. The non-warrior victims of the honored and obedient warriors and their sting-pullers are, on the other hand, consigned to historical oblivion as unworthy of being remembered, as they were unworthy to continue life. To such a community of the dead has Roger Laporte been consigned—“unwept, unhonored and unsung.”