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Mourning Poland’s burning man

Oct 26,2017 - Last updated at Oct 26,2017

Late in the afternoon on October 19, a 54-year-old man outside the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw distributed several dozen copies of a letter addressed to the Polish people. Then he set himself on fire.

The text of the letter is eminently rational. It carefully enumerates and decries actions taken by Poland’s government that, according to Polish and international courts alike, amount to an attack on the rule of law and liberal democracy.

The letter accuses the government, controlled by the Law and Justice (PiS) Party, of restricting civil liberties and undermining the judiciary. Specifically, it condemns the PiS for its discrimination against immigrants, women, LGBT people, Muslims and others, and for destroying the environment, by supporting coal-based energy, hunting and logging in Bialowieza Forest.

More broadly, the letter also denounces “the people holding the country’s highest offices” for abdicating government decision making to PiS Chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who holds no public office; and for converting public television and radio stations into PiS “propaganda organs”.

And it laments that the PiS government has made Poland an “object of ridicule” on the world stage.

One of the man’s goals in immolating himself, according to the letter, was to force “the chairman of PiS and the entire PiS nomenklatura to recognise that my death is their direct responsibility, and that they have my blood on their hands”.

The man hoped that his act of protest would influence PiS supporters — 47 per cent of the population, according to the latest polls — who should not want their favoured policies to be enacted in ways that undermine democracy and the rule of law.

But the letter also implores the party’s opponents — 16 per cent of Poles support the largest opposition party — “to remember that PiS voters are our mothers, brothers, neighbours, friends and colleagues”. As such, they should not be vilified, but rather reminded of “the rules of democracy”.

The letter concludes by calling on all Poles to “wake up” and change their government before it causes irreparable damage to the country.

So far, all we know about the letter writer is that his first name is Piotr, and that he is currently in critical condition, with burns covering 60 per cent of his body. But, despite his anonymity, his ideas are resonating through Poland.

In a separate letter to the media, Piotr warned that the PiS would attempt to minimise his act of protest.

“Their first point of attack,” he predicted, would be to point out that he suffers from depression.

“I am what you could call a mentally ill person,” he wrote.

“But there are millions like me in Poland, and somehow they manage to function more or less normally.” Piotr’s plea is clear: please do not confuse depression with insanity.

In Poland, the reactions to Piotr’s self-immolation have been mixed.

At first, the media were rather silent, with the exception of a few opposition pundits who spoke out to hold the PiS responsible.

In response to this criticism, Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak, tried, as predicted, to attribute Piotr’s action to his depression. Blaszczak then described Piotr as “a victim of the opposition’s all-out propaganda, which proclaims that they are fighting the government in the streets and abroad”.

Meanwhile, renowned Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland issued a strong rebuke against liberal media outlets that would attribute Piotr’s protest to mental illness.

It is an “act of extreme moral laziness”, she wrote on, to explain “such extreme civic despair and self-sacrifice as a result of depression, mental illness, and a related desire to end one’s own life”.

Holland speaks from a position of authority on this topic. She is the daughter of Henryk Holland, an anti-communist dissident who committed suicide in 1961. And in 2013, she made an HBO miniseries about Czech student Jan Palach’s self-immolation in Wenceslas Square in 1969.

For my part, I believe the Polish people should heed the message that Piotr conveyed in his letter.

Even if his actions did stem from some personal crisis, they should not be written off as the behaviour of an irrational person. After all, we cannot possibly know more than the man himself about his intentions. He deserves to have his stated motives and opinions known, discussed and taken seriously.

But Piotr’s act should not be made a spectacle in Poland’s political fight, or wielded haphazardly as a blunt object against the PiS or anyone else.

As the World Health Organisation states in its guidelines for journalists covering suicides, “suicide should not be reported as unexplainable or in a simplistic way”. Moreover, suicide victims should not be glorified as “martyrs and objects of public adulation”, lest other “susceptible persons” come to think “that their society honours suicidal behaviour”.

After an act of despair such as what Poland witnessed this month, the first priority should be to mourn the victim. The second should be to channel the despair that many are feeling in ways that nurture hope.



The writer, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, is director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw. ©Project Syndicate, 2017.

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