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Keeping Protests from Escalating to Extreme Actions

Roger LaPorte may be a name you never remember hearing.
And you may not even remember the tragic incident associated with him. Just like me until a few weeks ago.

I write this, though, in memory of Roger, who died of burns, self-inflicted. He poured gasoline over himself in front of the United Nations Building in New York City and set himself afire. He died the next day on Nov. 10, 1965.

Why in the world would a young, 22-year-old man engage in self-immolation?

In his case it was to protest the Vietnam War, in which the United States was becoming increasingly involved.

Roger, a former seminarian, was a volunteer worker with the Catholic Worker community in New York. He had also met and talked briefly with Daniel Berrigan, about whom I posted recently.

Father Berrigan was asked to officiate at a memorial service for Roger, and he did so in spite of being advised by his Catholic superiors not to do so.

Shortly afterward, Berrigan’s Jesuit superior and New York’s Cardinal Spellman ordered him to leave the country at once. He was exiled to Latin America, unable to return to the United States for several months.

Among other things, Berrigan questioned whether Roger’s act was a suicide. Rather, he suggested the young man’s fiery protest should perhaps be seen as an act of “misguided heroism,” the giving of life rather than the taking of life.

Shortly before he died, Roger reportedly had said, “I’m against war, all wars. I did this as a religious action.”

Roger’s self-sacrifice in opposition to the Vietnam War was actually the third that occurred in the United States, all in 1965.

Earlier that year an 82-year-old woman died by self-immolation in Detroit. And just one week before Roger’s deadly protest, Norman Morrison, a 31-year-old Quaker, had set himself on fire right below Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s Pentagon office.

Unfortunately, these drastic protests failed to bring the war to a halt.

And so, three years later the shameful My Lai Massacre occurred. Five years later (in 1970) the United States began the questionable invasion of Cambodia. And then in 1972, KimPhuc, “the girl in the picture,” was napalmed.

Finally, eight years after Roger’s extreme protest, the war officially ended, although it was not until April 1975 that the last U.S. soldier was killed in Vietnam and the last troops left that country – largely with a loss of face for the United States.

There was almost nothing positive to show for the war being prolonged all those years after the fiery protest of Roger LaPorte. What a tragic waste of lives and resources.

Now there are few protests about the U.S. war activities, which by next month will (we hope!) be only in Afghanistan.

But there are significant protests continuing in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

So in addition to the war on terrorism that continues in south Asia, domestically we now see what some call “class warfare.” (And the upper class clearly seems to be winning.)

Let us hope and pray that the protests now occurring will be heeded before there is an escalation of violence, and before some protesters resort to more extreme measures.

LeroySeat was a missionary to Japan from 1966-2004 and is both professor emeritus of Seinan Gakuin University and pastor emeritus of Fukuoka International Church. This column appeared previously on his blog.