Sunday, December 03, 2006

Protester immolation virtually unnoticed

Malachi Ritscher envisioned his death as one full of purpose.

He carefully planned the details, mailed a copy of his apartment key to a friend, created to-do lists for his family. On his Web site, the 52-year-old experimental musician who'd fought with depression even penned his obituary.

At 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 3 — four days before an election caused a seismic shift in Washington politics — Ritscher, a frequent anti-war protester, stood by an off-ramp in downtown Chicago near a statue of a giant flame, set up a video camera, doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire.

Aglow for the crush of morning commuters, his flaming body was supposed to be a call to the nation, a symbol of his rage and discontent with the U.S. war in Iraq.

"Here is the statement I want to make: if I am required to pay for your barbaric war, I choose not to live in your world. I refuse to finance the mass murder of innocent civilians, who did nothing to threaten our country," he wrote in his suicide note. "... If one death can atone for anything, in any small way, to say to the world: I apologize for what we have done to you, I am ashamed for the mayhem and turmoil caused by my country."

There was only one problem: No one was listening.

It took five days for the Cook County medical examiner to identify the charred-beyond-recognition corpse. Meanwhile, Ritscher's suicide went largely unnoticed. It wasn't until a reporter for an alternative weekly, the Chicago Reader, pieced the facts together that word began to spread.

Soon, tributes — and questions — poured in to the paper's blogs.

Was this a man consumed by mental illness? Or was Ritscher a martyr driven by rage over what he saw as an unjust war? Was he a convenient symbol for an anti-war movement or was there more to his message?

"This man killed himself in such a painful way, specifically to get our attention on these things," said Jennifer Diaz, a 28-year-old graduate student who never met him but has been researching his life. Now, she is organizing protests and vigils in his name. "I'm not going to sit by and I can't sit by and let this go unheard."

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