The Iraq war has produced too many tragedies to count. And in the spectrum of them, from innocent children killed by errant fire, cluster bombs or car bombs, to American soldiers cut down in the prime of their lives, the story of Malachi Ritscher may not rank particularly high. Nonetheless, it struck me to the core. An avant-garde jazz enthusiast and peace activist in Chicago, Ritscher killed himself earlier this month. With an American flag draped over his head, and a sign that read "Thou Shalt Not Kill. As Ye Sow So Shall Ye Reap.Your Taxes Buy Bombs and Bullets," he lit himself on fire.
Until the Chicago Reader's Michael Miner pointed out Ritscher's death in a column last week, the local media had by-and-large ignored the story. In some senses it's easy to understand why: there's a fear that covering suicides like these can influence others and inspire copycats. But I think the real reason is that an act like this so violates our own conscience, so shames us or saddens us that it simply doesn't make for good copy. Here is an excerpt from Ritscher's suicide note. It shows a potent mix of moral seriousness, mental instablity, and a disquieting contemplation of murder:
When I hear about our young men and women who are sent off to war in the name of God and Country, and who give up their lives for no rational cause at all, my heart is crushed. What has happened to my country? we have become worse than the imagined enemy - killing civilians and calling it 'collateral damage', torturing and trampling human rights inside and outside our own borders, violating our own Constitution whenever it seems convenient, lying and stealing right and left, more concerned with sports on television and ring-tones on cell-phones than the future of the world.... half the population is taking medication because they cannot face the daily stress of living in the richest nation in the world.
I too love God and Country, and feel called upon to serve. I can only hope my sacrifice is worth more than those brave lives thrown away when we attacked an Arab nation under the deception of 'Weapons of Mass Destruction'. Our interference completely destroyed that country, and destabilized the entire region. Everyone who pays taxes has blood on their hands.
I have had one previous opportunity to serve my country in a meaningful way - at 8:05 one morning in 2002 I passed Donald Rumsfeld on Delaware Avenue and I was acutely aware that slashing his throat would spare the lives of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of innocent people. I had a knife clenched in my hand, and there were no bodyguards visible; to my deep shame I hesitated, and the moment was past.
Many people will think that I should not be able to choose the time and manner of my own death. My position is that I only get one death, I want it to be a good one...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. I will not participate in your charade - my conscience will not allow me to be a part of your crusade. There might be some who say "it's a coward's way out" - that opinion is so idiotic that it requires no response. From my point of view, I am opening a new door.
Estranged from his son and ex-wife, it appears that Malachi Ritscher was suffering from mental illness when he killed himself.
But what is war if not collective madness?