It does not matter why that man lit himself on fire in New York

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun15,2024

The scene outside of the New York courthouse holding the Trump trial has become a microcosm of our deep political divisions and rage this month. Images of citizens screaming at each other from across security barriers have played out nightly on news programs.

But few were prepared for what occurred Friday night, when a man threw flyers in the air, poured a flammable liquid on himself and lit himself on fire.

Some immediately rushed to use the incident to fuel their own rage. On the far left, postings and comments declared MAGA supporters were lighting themselves and “MAGA Terrorist just set himself on fire.”

For many, it seemed a fact too good to check. Even after the police and fire officials explained that the material distributed by the man did not seem to relate to the trial, journalists pushed for a connection to the pro-Trump protesters. Officials reported that the flyers concerned wacky conspiracy theories related to schools and other matters.

The political views of Max Azzarello, 37, of Florida are still not fully known, but does it really matter? What should be clear is that he was a deeply disturbed individual. Yet even self-immolation may no longer be treated as per se evidence of mental illness. In today’s politics, even setting yourself on fire can be rationalized.

An event was held recently at UCLA in which two psychiatrists appeared to rationalize self-immolation in the cause of people in Gaza.

Ragda Izar and Afaf Moustafa were reportedly discussing the self-immolation in front of Israel’s embassy of airman Aaron Bushnell in February to protest Israeli policies. It was referred to as a “revolutionary suicide” on the panel on “Depathologizing Resistance.”

UCLA’s Izar stated that Bushnell “carried a lot of distress…but does that mean that the actions he engaged in are any less valid?” She suggested that it is “normal to be distressed when you’re seeing this level of carnage [in Gaza].”

Moustafa is quoted as saying that “Psychiatry pathologizes non-pathological…reactions to a pathological environment or pathological society. It’s considered illness to choose to die in protest of the violence of war but perfectly sane to choose to die in service of the violence of war.”

There have been a few prominent historical self-immolations in protest, including the famous case of Thich Quang Duc, who burned himself alive to protest the Vietnam War in 1963. However, as lay persons, most of us would hazard to say that it is not “normal” or “valid” to set oneself on fire in a protest.

The dividing line between rage and reason has always been contextual. In my forthcoming book, “The Indispensable Right: Free Speech in an Age of Rage,” I discuss how we have faced regular periods of rage in our history. How one views rage depends largely on the underlying viewpoint. This country was born in rage with the Boston Tea Party, where a riot with massive property damage is celebrated as a moment of liberation.

Yet even self-immolation may now be viewed as somehow valid when used to oppose Israeli policies or other “distressful” realities. If Azzarello was motivated by his view of a conspiracy among educators or Trump’s trial, would his self-immolation also be viewed as valid?

Relativism has become deeply embedded in our politics, as we see in the continuing efforts to shut down opposing views. A year ago, Stanford University was the scene of a disgraceful shout-down of a federal judge who wanted to share his jurisprudential views.

The university apologized to federal appellate Judge Kyle Duncan, particularly after a dean appeared to blame him at the event for “triggering” students by sharing his opposing views. 

The situation did not improve after the response of the university. At the time, I criticized Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Law School Dean Jenny Martinez after they declined to punish any students. Instead, all students were required to watch a widely mocked video on free speech.

One year later, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression released “The Judge Duncan Shoutdown: What Stanford Students Think.” It turns out that 54 percent of Stanford students believe Judge Duncan’s visit should have been canceled by the administration. Seventy-five percent said that “shouting down speakers to prevent them from speaking on campus” is acceptable at least sometimes.

Most chilling, almost 40 percent of the students stated that using physical violence to shut down a campus speaker can at times be acceptable.

Of course, the same students supporting violence to silence opposing views would be triggered and traumatized by others preventing them from hearing their own preferred viewpoints or speakers. For these deluded young people, violence is righteousness when used to silence others, but reprehensible if ever used to silence themselves.

This relativism is taught by many faculty who have publicly discussed “detonating white people,” abolishing white people, calling for Republicans to suffer,  strangling police officers, celebrating the death of conservatives, calling for the killing of Trump supporters, supporting the murder of conservative protesters and making other inflammatory statements.

Violent acts against others (or even against oneself in the case of self-immolation) can become “normal” once you accept that others have triggered a response through their conduct or speech. In recent years, we have seen journalists and lawyers throwing Molotov cocktails at police, and some justify it as a form of protest.

What we are losing is a sense of clarity or objectivity. Self-immolation is not normal whether committed by a monk or a madman. Likewise, violence against political opponents is not contextual, but wrong. 

The alternative is to come up with excuses about how we must not “pathologize non-pathological…reactions to a pathological environment or pathological society.” That gobbledygook merely rationalizes the irrational and justifies the unjustifiable. 

I have no familiarity with either Bushnell or Azzarello, but I know that setting yourself on fire or violently attacking others is indeed “less valid” than alternatives, such as participating in the political system. Before we stretch the spectrum of what is the new normal, we might want to consider the implications of this radical relativism that is taking hold in our political discourse. If you are heading to a rally with matches and a can of accelerant, then you have issues, and they are not political.

Jonathan Turley is the J.B. & Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at the George Washington University Law School.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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2 thoughts on “It does not matter why that man lit himself on fire in New York”
  1. It doesn’t matter why I lit myself on fire in New York. What should be clear is that I am a deeply disturbed individual. Yet even self-immolation may no longer be treated as per se evidence of mental illness. In today’s politics, even setting yourself on fire can be rationalized.

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