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Sacrifice

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Norman Morrison
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In 1965 Norman Morrison, a Quaker, set himself on fire in front of Robert McNamara's Pentagon office to protest the Vietnam War. He held his one-year-old daughter Emily until the final moment when he lit the match. It's still unclear what happened. Was this act a legitimate form of protest, or the actions of a deranged man who may have even been willing to sacrifice his own daughter for his beliefs? We talk about this with Paul Hendrickson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a former Washington Post reporter. He wrote "The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and the Five Lives of a Lost War" and spent a great deal of time researching the event.

Excerpt from Paul Hendrickson's book, "The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and the Five Lives of a Lost War"

The Quaker did it one rush hour evening, in gathering dark. No Buddhist monks were present to feed peppermint oil on the flames and keep down the smell of burning flesh. The fire shot ten to twelve feet into the air- so said a Pentagon guard who tore to an alarm box to call the fire department. (They got there quickly but it was pointless.) The flames, people said, made an envelope of color around his asphyxiating body. The sound of it, one witness said, was like the whoosh of small-rocket fire.

What made it so horrifying, awesome, and impenetrable all at once was that Norman R. Morrison had a child, his own infant daughter, in his presence. Her name is Emily, and she was only nine days from her first birthday. Had he held her in his left arm while he'd soaked himself with his right? Some thought so. Did he set her down ahead of time and then move off ten or fifteen paces before removing the cap from the glass gallon container that contained the yellowish liquid? This too was reported. Did he release her just as the flames were licking up from his shoe tops, which is where he had apparently struck the match, and, if so, did he do it of his own volition or out of a panicked response to the screams of onlookers?

Another way of framing the last question might be: If he did put her down at the critical second, which is my hedging belief, was it out of a confusion and fear, or out his love and mercy?

It will never be known. We don't have a videotape. Eyewitness accounts conflict. That night's news flashes and the next day's newspaper stories were maddeningly contradictory, imprecise, hedgy- often within the same story. Some of the second- and third-day reports turned hedgier still. I know: I've spent a fair amount of time these many years later poring over them, trying to cross-analyze, make them jibe. They won't be jibed.

Some accounts had the burning man handing his child off to a woman never identified. I don't believe it. And yet what is true? The deeper I sought to go, the more unreachable the answers seem, and not just the answers to those blurred final seconds. Maybe I should have understood this much from the beginning.

Excerpted from The Living and the Dead by Paul Hendrickson Copyright (c) 1996 by Paul Hendrickson. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

  • Music Bridge:
    Wonderplucks
    Artist: Freeform
    CD: Outside In (Skam)

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