Is Whistleblowing the New Self Immolation?

To say that Thich Quang Duc is to Edward Snowden as firey religious protest is to leaking classified spy documents may come off as a bit of a stretch. And yet there are echoes of the one in the other.

The self-immolation of Thich Quang Doc, Saigon, 1963. Via

On June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk, assumed the lotus position in the middle of a busy Saigon intersection. After a fellow monk doused Quang Duc in five gallons of gasoline, Quang Duc, 66, said a quick prayer, lit a match, and set his body ablaze. An onlooking cop fell prostrate, overcome with emotion at the sight of the burning man who sat eerily motionless until his charred remains teetered over.   

Fast forward a half century. Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency intelligence expert who most recently worked for government-contracted security firm Booz Allen Hamilton, prepares the last few documents of what would soon become blockbuster leaks--the blockbuster (if entirely unsurpring) leaks, arguably the most damning curtain-pulls on America's all-seeing surveillance machine to ever hit the NSA. Snowden, 29, tells his wife he'll be gone for a while. He boards a plane for Hong Kong, where he holes up in an undisclosed hotel. He passes the time reading Dick Cheney's autobiography, and watching breathless television reports and poring over newspaper articles and blog chatter all centered on not just what his move revealed, but what his act of revealing even means in the first place. Feeling the heat of the CIA, which has an office in Hong Kong, Snowden goes on the lam. His whereabouts are currently unknown.  

You may be wondering why I'm mentioning Quang Duc and Snowden in the same breath. The two are drastically different--two different people in different times, places, and scenarios. Quang Duc made the ultimate sacrifice to call attention to what he saw as gross religious inequality; Snowden, to reveal the true scope of a global digital dragnet that he sees as a grave, potentially irreversible threat to democracy. So to say that Quang Duc is to Snowden as firey religious protest is to leaking classified spy documents may come off as a bit of a stretch. 

Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald interviews Edward Snowden. Via the Guardian 

And yet there are echoes of the one in the other. Think about it. Both Quang Duc and Snowden gave up literally everything they had to help expose government injustices, if even just for a moment. They offered up their bodies for greater goods--indeed, Snowden expects to be punished for what he did, though he tells the Guardian that he is not scared of what may come of him. With Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who last week put the bullhorn to Snowden's whistleblowing, now promising even more revelations in the coming days, the gasoline is maybe only just beginning to douse Snowden. There may be no flames, but Edward Snowden is slowly but surely self-immolating himsef.   

That's not to say self-immolation isn't still happening in certain countries, of course. So I'm definitely not saying that whistleblowing has replaced self-immolation--only that it has a sort of analogue in the ancient act of burning one's self alive. But inherent to self-immolation is the idea of the public spectacle. A day prior to Quang Duc's act, US correspondents in the region were tipped off that  something significant would happen on the street outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. (Reporters largely ignored the warnings.) Quang Duc knew what he was doing, and knew that a big crowd would ensure his cause rippling across the globe.  Snowden, for his part, carefully orchestrated the recent bombshell stories in the Guardian and The Washington Post. Snowden knows (sort of) what he's doing, and knows that a big crowd will ensure his claims ripple across the globe, which they have.  

Even their demeanor is oddly similar--Quang Doc didn't flinch as the flames engulfed him, a stoicism made all the more poignant in American journalist Malcolm Browne's iconic image of the monk's self immolation. Save for a few hints of nervousness, Snowden, according to the Guardian, is cool and collected. He's made the choice and lit the match, and he's fine with that. 

Images of Quang Duc's suicide struck a chord as they raced around the world. "No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one," President Kennedy said. Will the sight of a fleeing and bespecled computer whiz in a collared shirt elicit similar responses from the world's leaders? Not from the proverbial ashes of Snowden's person, they won't. And that's a shame.      

Reach Brian at brian@motherboard.tv. @thebanderson