The Curious Death of David Buckel

Writing for South Africa’s Daily Maverick, my husband, Glen Retief reflects on his early 1990’s encounter with civil rights lawyer, David Buckel. What jarred the memory was David Buckel’s controversial, disturbing, and carefully orchestrated public suicide last month in Brooklyn, NY.

At dawn he wheeled a barrow to Prospect Park, near his workplace. In it he had a jug of petrol, the kind you bring back from the BP when you run out along the road. He also had a printed copy of another suicide letter, which he left in the barrow. In this one, he apologised to the police for leaving a mess.

No one witnessed his self-immolation, although we can all probably picture it after Malcolm Browne’s classic photograph of the monk Thich Quang Duc setting himself alight in Saigon in 1963: the placid serenity, the eerie, unshakable commitment.

David Buckel

In a note Buckel emailed the day of his death he stated he took his life in protest of our inaction to address climate change. He suggests his suicide mirrors what we are doing to ourselves as a specie. He soaked himself in gasoline and set himself alight leaving loved ones behind, including a college-aged daughter.

In reacting to this dramatic and extreme act, writers and commenters in print and on social media immediately began commenting on Buckel’s mental health. They proposed various psychological reasons why Buckel would kill himself. This could not simply be an act of political witness. He must have been depressed, suicidal for a long time, weary of life, perhaps because of a recently diagnosed terminal disease. Why else would he do something so violent to himself and so thoughtless to his loved ones?

Right-wing media reacted quickly and with lots of heat and derision. I am not surprised the folks who dismiss the reality of climate change were some of the first to mock Buckel and his death. But strong reactions to Buckel’s death and multiple distractions away from his message have come from all political corners.

I have spent time reading Buckel’s final words he emailed to the New York Times other media.

“Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather. Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”

In his note, which was received by The Times at 5:55 a.m., Mr. Buckel discussed the difficulty of improving the world even for those who make vigorous efforts to do so.

Privilege, he said, was derived from the suffering of others.

“Many who drive their own lives to help others often realize that they do not change what causes the need for their help,” Mr. Buckel wrote, adding that donating to organizations was not enough.

Noting that he was privileged with “good health to the final moment,” Mr. Buckel said he wanted his death to lead to increased action. “Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purpose in death,” he wrote.

What I find curious about Buckel’s death is not all the reasons–stated or unknown–for why he did it. Rather I am curious about what his self-immolation does to us and for us. People are quick to judge, to condemn, to minimize, and to turn the conversation to anything but Buckel’s message.

Suicide is a dreadful and unnecessary route to take. LGBTQ people are working hard to stay alive and to create a world where we thrive and enjoy life. Suicide always pushes a lot of buttons for many people for multiple reasons.

There is always a need for a useful conversation about suicide prevention. I highly recommend Kate Bornstein’s book, 101 Alternatives to Suicides for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws.

I must return to Buckel’s message though–regardless of what we may feel about how he chose to highlight it. He tells us his death mirrors what we are doing to ourselves and our loved ones.

  • We have soaked our lives and our economies with fossil fuels.
  • We have ignited global warming.
  • Some people claim Buckel was mentally ill or emotionally unstable. I point you to Amitav Ghosh, who write how we are all deranged when it comes to climate change. We are on a heedless, irrational, suicidal course that can only be explained by a mass derangement.
  • When people point out the thoughtlessness of Buckel’s action and how it affects his loved ones, particularly his daughter, I see even this as a mirror to us for all of the ways  we do not do enough to ensure our descendants have a safe and stable place to live.

My major critique of Buckel’s actions is that we still need him, even if he believed his death will have a bigger impact than the rest of his life would have had. This is not the time to give up, to jump ship, to abandon the effort and say all is lost. I will not pretend everything will be ok, or there is a lot of hope. We have set ourselves on a risky path with lots of dangerous consequences. We will need courage for the days ahead even more than hope. We need to believe in each other more than we believe is possible. And though I strongly advocate against suicide, I do believe there are many other ways we can put our bodies on the line. Like the fierce, creative, and controversial early HIV/AIDS activists, we need to move systems and use our heads, hearts, and bodies to do so.

I will continue to look at Buckel’s death as a mirror, one with a dreadful and disturbing image looking back at all of us. “…my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”

On a spring day in a park in NYC a gay rights lawyer set himself aflame with the hope of showing us what we most often refuse to see.


This post has 3 Comments

  1. Warren Hoskins on May 16, 2018 at 5:27 pm

    Peterson, thank you. I think of you with gratitude from time to time anyway (I am an SEYM Quaker). I will absorb what you have written here. For me, to read of David’s self-sacrifice was to immediately invoke the memory of Quaker Norman Morrison, who immolated himself in November 1965 outside the Pentagon. Norman was in turn obviously moved by the Vietnamese monk’s public immolation and by the knowledge our US tax dollars – including his – were napalming children in Vietnam. The perception that without radical actions, heat will be claiming the lives of millions of children, starting perhaps in India or in the Middle East, but starting … well, when? David said the burning of the Earth has begun.

  2. Peterson Toscano on May 16, 2018 at 6:51 pm

    Thank you, Warren for reading the piece and commenting and putting Norman Morrison’s death in perspective. These are dreadful messages, weighty ones. Thank you for your witness at SEYM and in the world you inhabit.

  3. Peterson Toscano on March 2, 2019 at 2:53 pm

    Thank you, Mike for sharing your essay with me. I have been very moved by the life and death of David Buckel.

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