"There is no pillow so soft as a clear conscience." ~ French proverb
Requiem for a Forgotten Hero
"Zeal for thine house consumed me." ~ John 2:17
Forty years ago he struck a match and lit a single blow against an immoral war. He fired the only weapon he believed he had in his arsenal: himself. Some called him a madman, a cruel father and heartless parent. Most shook their heads in disbelief: Norman Morrison killed himself to protest a war.
Norman Morrison died 40 years ago this November in Washington DC by self-immolation. He set himself afire outside the Pentagon office of Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. Before he doused himself and set himself aflame, he left his 15 month-old daughter nearby.
Emotionally overwrought at the reports of children killed in a bombed church in Vietnam the day before, Morrison may have intended the presence of his daughter, Emily, as a symbol. He may have intended her presence as a reminder. He may have wanted her there to symbolize the tragedy of parents in Vietnam losing their children, by making an emphatic point. At that time, November 1965, the war in Vietnam was still in its infancy. Morrison tried to stop it altogether by a single, excruciatingly painful act of self-sacrifice.
The father of three small children, Morrison had everything to live for. Thirty two-years old and a Quaker, he suffered no personal risk of involvement in the war in Vietnam. He wouldn't be drafted. No blood would be upon his hands.
What made him do it? What religious zeal made him choose a terrible death, crucifixion by fire, when he could have easily walked away? What did he expect to accomplish?
"On the day that he died, as he was having lunch with his wife, Anne, Morrison read a report from Paris Match, reprinted in I. F. Stone's Weekly, about a French priest in Vietnam whose church had been bombed by U.S. planes," wrote researchers Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan. "The priest buried at least seven of his parishioners, all of whom had been 'blown to bits'."
Morrison took the war personally. He looked in the mirror as a patriot, as a parent of small children, and didn't like what he saw his country had become. Perhaps, in his zeal, disturbed by his conscience, impassioned by what he thought was his religious duty, overcome by a feeling of impatience at those powerful people who could have stopped the war but didn't, Morrison acted alone because so many others remained impassive.
But he would not be alone for long.
A week after Norman Morrison's death, on the 9th of November, 1965, another American followed his example. Roger A. LaPorte, 21, a member of the Catholic Worker movement, stepped in front of the Dag Hammarskj'ld Library at the United Nations in New York, calmly composed himself in the position of the Buddhist monks who had immolated themselves in Vietnam earlier, doused himself with gasoline, and set himself aflame. La Porte died the next day at Bellevue Hospital from second- and third-degree burns covering 95 percent of his body. Despite his burns, he remained conscious, lucid, clearly able to speak. When asked why he had immolated himself, La Porte calmly replied, "I'm a Catholic Worker. I'm against war, all wars. I did this as a religious action."
Morrison and La Porte, like 82-year old Alice Herz of Detroit, a Quaker who immolated herself earlier that year and perhaps inspired Morrison, died for our sins. The sins of flawed foreign policy. But they did not fail, their leaders failed them.
Alice Herz mailed a note to her daughter before she died, explaining her action. She wrote: "I do this not out of despair but out of hope. I choose the illuminating death of a Buddhist to protest against a great country trying to wipe out a small country for no reason."
Morrison may have only sought to change the mind of one powerful man, while pricking the conscience of a country. Suppose the Secretary of Defense, McNamara, had suddenly been stricken by a pang of conscience? Suppose the public had seen Morrison's act for what it was--a symbolic blood sacrifice to assuage guilt--and suppose enough citizens lobbied their elected leaders to stop the war? Instead, as so aptly portrayed by Alec Baldwin in the movie Path to War, McNamara and LBJ continued on the course of escalation.
So, in a way, Morrison sacrificed himself, some say needlessly, to save 58,000 US soldiers and an estimated two million Vietnamese who died. From that perspective, 40 years later and well into another disastrous war, Morrison failed. The public may have been aghast, but the press, politicians and most Christian preachers dismissed his suicide as the act of a disturbed man. Apparently, they implied, only a fool dies for the sins of others.
A friend of Morrison, a fellow Quaker, observed otherwise, remarking that one "must follow the light as he understands it . . . (Morrison) was a mystic who believed that his self-sacrifice was a giving, not a taking of life."