Tuesday, March 20, 2007

I Also Heard You Malachi...

On November 3,2006 A Man Set Himself On Fire To Protest the War In Iraq Among The Bustling And Heavy Traffic Of Downtown Chicago...But Was The World Paying Attention ???

I Heard You, Malachi

By Jennifer Diaz
November 9, 2006

Did you ever burn your hand on a stove? Do you remember
the pain of it?

On Friday, November 3, a man doused his body with
gasoline and set himself afire to protest the war in
Iraq . He died quietly in flames. His name was Malachi

Haven't seen it in the news? Me neither, which is kind
of strange if you ask me, considering that it happened
right here in downtown Chicago in front of hundreds of
commuters during morning rush hour. The only
conventional newspaper coverage to date was a tiny
paragraph that appeared in the Saturday edition of the
Chicago Sun-Times. Since then...nothing.

Should we concerned about the lack of coverage? This is
serious, friends. You don't have to be a communication
scholar to know that the news media go by the maxim,
"When it bleeds, it leads." In a time of intense
controversy over war, a man offers up his life and
endures prolonged, excruciating pain to make a tangible
statement of his belief in peace - are we to believe
that this isn't newsworthy?

When Thich Quang Duc, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, set
himself on fire in 1963 to protest the corrupt and
brutal regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, it was all over the
media. A lucid, well respected American citizen makes
the ultimate sacrifice on American soil four days
before a national election - I ask again: is there no
story here?

I would assert that there are two stories here. One is
BELIEVED IN. The other is that, in a society where a
rogue government is afforded the power to "create
reality" and where the once objective news media have
become politicized conglomerates either owned by or
cozy with the powers that they are supposed to be
watchdogging, a lack of coverage on a newsworthy story
warrants close scrutiny.

Deeply disturbed by this event since I got word of it,
I felt compelled to investigate it further. In memory
of Mr. Ritscher, I write now of both stories.

As you read, I implore you: agree or disagree, but do
not be indifferent. This man's message was important
enough to him to choose an excruciatingly painful death
- so that you and I would hear it.

A Traffic Nuisance

Malachi Ritscher had a home-made sign with him when he
left the house Friday morning. Firefighters found it
next to his charred remains. It read, "Thou shalt not

A jazz aficionado who produced professional recordings
of countless performers in local venues, Ritscher was
well loved in the Chicago jazz community and has been
described by members of that scene as being a warm,
modest and selfless individual. A long-time music
enthusiast, Ritscher was a fixture at several local
jazz haunts. He was said to be very generous - band
members tell that he would pay the admission fee for
their gig, record their performance, and then offer
them the recording he had made free of charge. Many of
the recordings were later sold commercially. Others
corroborate Ritscher's generous nature. "He gave me
peppers from his garden!" cried bartender Janice W.,
tearing up when she heard what he had done.

Ritscher was deeply disturbed by the United States'
waging of war in Iraq , which has led so far to the
deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. In his
mission statement, posted on his homepage along with a
self-written obituary, he writes of his morbid actions:

"I refuse to finance the mass murder of innocent
civilians...What is one more life thrown away in this
sad and useless national tragedy? 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

One can only imagine what Ritscher must have been
thinking as he made his way to the site of his self-
immolation - the aptly chosen "Flame of the Millenium"
sculpture west of Chicago 's downtown loop. Would
Americans appreciate his sacrifice? Would it be a force
for good in the world? One thing he surely didn't
expect, as he watched a sea of morning commuters crawl
by on the nearby Kennedy expressway: that it would go

But that is just what has happened. At some point after
Ritscher's ordeal began, a motorist called police to
report that a statue was burning. Except for those who
happened to read the blurb in the Sun-Times or to see a
short "breaking news" spot on Chicago's CBS2 local news
station, the hundreds of motorists who drove by the
incident still know it only as a traffic annoyance -
that "statue-fire" that was slowing things up on the
I-90 Friday morning.

A Different Kind Of News Hole

Because there has been no further coverage of it in any
of the main news outlets, they - and most other
Americans - will never know what Ritscher did - what
one man was willing to do to make a difference in the

"I don't understand," people have told me. "Why
wouldn't the papers run it?" Their puzzlement comes
from a lingering, tenacious belief in the objectivity
of the news. Moments like these - high news value, no
story - are particularly valuable in that they expose
our news media for what they have become: corporate
black boxes from which the only news that escapes is
that which cooperates with profit margins and political

In the new era of "synergy," or coordinated advertising
among corporate affiliates, media conglomerates have
formed alliances with some of the (other) largest
companies in the world. Time-Warner/AOL, the globe's
largest media conglomerate and owner of CNN, is
affiliated with cooperative giant Kraft and Viacom,
another corporate behemoth. Additionally, the generous
campaign contributions invariably made by such
conglomerates to politicians suggests another kind of
synergy - a political one. As it pertains to objective
news reporting, synergy means that there are more toes
to step on - and therefore more rules to follow - about
what types of stories reporters can run (and more
importantly, not run).

The fact that Ritscher's bold anti-war message came
right before an election, combined with the conspicuous
lack of coverage on the event suggests a conservative
bias to the news, not a liberal one, as goes the
government-sanctioned myth on the topic.

Some will suggest "copycat prevention" as an
explanations for the lack of coverage; news outlets are
known to occasionally self-censor sensational acts of
murder or suicide in order to avoid glamorizing them
and inspiring similar behavior in others. But they
routinely break this rule when the murder or suicide is
deemed important enough for the public to know about.
Reports of school shootings have been followed by more
school shootings, but we still hear of those. Why?
Because the American public needs to know what's going
on in our schools. We also need to know the effect the
war is having on its citizens.

Ritscher's passion

Although his act might have had some influence on the
midterm elections, had it been heard, the relevance of
his message extends beyond any short term outcome.
Instead, Ritscher entreats Americans to change their

Lamenting what he saw as a moral vacuousness in
American culture, the would-be martyr felt that
Americans are "...more concerned with sports on
television and ring-tones on cell-phones than the
future of the world." Ritscher saw the problem as being
due to a gross deficiency of personal responsibility in
American culture, and offered his self-immolation in a
spirit of unified atonement.

Some have suggested that Ritscher's actions can be
explained by mental illness. It seems clear that the
man was deeply troubled. But it is not clear how that
negates his message. At a time when 10% of Americans
are taking psychiatric medication, the marginalization
of "the mentally ill" as an identifiable group of
people radically different from ourselves is making
less and less sense. Besides "disturbed," Ritscher is
also described by those who knew him as being an
animated, friendly person who talked enthusiastically
of his many interests and travels in addition to his
political beliefs.

Another description that people have applied to
Ritscher's mind-boggling choice is "senseless." But his
own mission statement offers an elegant response to
that notion:

"My position is that I only get one death, I want it to
be a good one. Wouldn't it be better to stand for
something or make a statement, rather than a fiery
collision with some drunk driver? Are not smokers
choosing death by lung cancer? Where is the dignity
there? Are not the people the people [sic] who
disregard the environment killing themselves and future

In addition to intent, the mission statement reveals a
strong sense of moral duty and a faith in the God of
his understanding. In the document, he presents his act
as an example of a lived, choice-based faith that he
feels is lacking from modern religious life.

In a gentle - but pointed - rebuke to Christian pop
culture, which is said to have been a key factor in
both of George W. Bush's presidential campaigns,
Ritscher asks, "Who would Jesus bomb?" And alluding to
the intense and politicized culture warring of recent
years, he implores Christians, Jews and Muslims alike
to believe that "God's message is tolerance and love,
not self-righteousness and hatred."

As beings we are born with a life currency and the
administrative powers to spend it as we see fit. Some
will denounce Malachi Ritscher for squandering his life-
money. Others will love him for putting it where his
mouth was. No matter where you fall on that continuum
you must agree: his act should buy him more than a mere
traffic mention. Unfortunately, all the papers want
these days is the green stuff. --

[Jennifer Diaz is a graduate student of communication
at the University of Illinois at Chicago .
She can be contacted at http://www.iheardyoumalachi.org or at
indiejennn@gmail.com. ]
More resources:

Ritscher homepage, "Mission Statement":

Ritscher homepage, Obituary:

Ritscher homepage, March, 2005 protest:

Sun-Times article:

CBS2 news spot:

Chicago Reader online music blog:

Main website:


Good blog entry:


Recent Suntimes column pieces:


Wikipedia entries:


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1 comment:

vaporland said...

Sad to say, the news links here no longer work . . .