Seven years before, when Gomes was teaching English in South Korea, he felt a calling to go teach children in North Korea. Upon crossing into the country through China, he was quickly apprehended and sentenced to eight years in a labor camp. While in custody, he tried to kill himself, but was eventually released after former President Jimmy Carter went to North Korea. Gomes later wrote a book titled “Violence and Humanity: A Saga” about his travails.
Before any of this, Aijalon Gomes was the resident adviser of my dorm during my freshman year of college. He mostly stayed to himself, but he would quietly tell us please to turn down our music with a reassurance that it wasn’t a big deal. When I talked to my friends from college after hearing about his death, nobody knew what to say other than, “That’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.” We believed there was no meaning to glean.
It’s hard to get comfortable with such violence. Wynn Bruce’s act of protest feels senseless because his death will not change the way legislators, corporations and individuals go about their polluting lives. There is a silent calculation among witnesses that accompanies any act of civil disobedience, even those we may agree with on principle: What is the point? This is standard fare for how many people think about protests, violent or not. We tend to pathologize the activists and imagine that they must be animated by the pettiness and greed that motivates us. In many cases, they are.
But self-immolation forces the witnesses, whether in person or through the news, to confront an intensity of conviction that goes well beyond what they may think is possible. In this way, self-immolators like Thich Quang Durc become almost inhuman, even holy. At the same time, the act establishes an entirely personal connection because the real question at hand isn’t really, “Why did he do that?” Rather, the self-immolator is asking you — with all the intimidation and self-righteousness a person can muster — “Why don’t you care even half as much as I do?”
I am still horrified by self-immolation, but I also believe that we should resist the urge to write it off as the last act of the mentally ill and the desperate. Nor should we simply frame each incidence with some made-up measure of how much effect it has had on the world. The discomfort we feel over this practice and our sincere desire to see it end should not preclude us from taking it seriously as an act of protest. We should hope this practice ends, but we also shouldn’t just look away.
Wynn Bruce lit himself on fire on Earth Day 2022 because he believed it might inspire people to work against climate change. There is not any more or less meaning we need to take away from it.
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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”