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Of NORMAN MORRISON Thirty years ago a Baltimore Quaker set himself on fire to protest the war in Vietnam. Did it make a difference?


July 30, 1995|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Writer

She writes: "As you know, McNamara has only been using a few lines of my mother's press release -- those that are complimentary to him, or his book. My mother's press release is firstly about Norman and the immorality of war. This he does not or has not truly addressed."

It troubles Emily that so much emphasis has been put on her presence at Norman's self-immolation. She feels it has obscured the spiritual meaning of his act.

"Norman's clarity and purpose was clouded by the press and even now by McNamara's and others' accounts of my presence," she says.

"His act stands alone, regardless of if he had intended to take my life or not. He didn't. No onlooker could have stopped him from taking me if he had clearly decided to do so. If he had thought he was asked to take me, he felt relieved of doing so -- and no one will know at what moment this occurred.

"The fact is I am alive, and regardless of any onlookers, or stories, or kerosene, or 'throwing down,' it was his choice to have me alive. That to me is all that really matters. No one seems to have given him credit for making this choice on his own."

It has taken Christina, on the other hand, many years to work through the puzzle of why Norman took Emily with him.

"When I started to understand the larger picture of my father's death, I came to learn that Emily had actually been there with him," she says. "As a child, it never occurred to me that he might have intended to sacrifice her as well. Only in the last few years have I recognized the horror that it must have been for her to witness his death, and to try to figure out what his intentions were regarding her.

"At first I was incensed that he could even imagine sacrificing a child in following his own vision. And he did sacrifice her in a sense by requiring her to witness his death and by leaving her there without him.

"My anger has now turned into amazement. The odds are very small that he would have logistically been able to have her with him, that her presence would represent so powerfully the children that he sought to save . . . and that she would come through physically unharmed. And yet it all happened. The success, if you will, of their incredible story tells me that he was indeed divinely inspired. Strangely enough, I now realize that it must have also bonded them in a way that very few people will ever understand or experience."

Those who knew Norman agree he was that rare person who did not make the usual distinction between the obligation to his own family and his responsibility to the rest of mankind.

After his death, it fell to his widow to interpret to others -- including her children -- such a view of the world; to explain how completely committed Norman was to the idea that we all belong one human family.

"I'm sure he recognized the human and psychological loss his death would be to us, and that must have made the decision very difficult for him," Anne Morrison said just a few weeks after Norman's death. "But he must have weighed this against the suffering of the people of Vietnam. The loss of the Vietnamese is really so much greater than my loss, and I keep telling myself this. It's a comforting reminder."


On the last morning of his life Norman Morrison called in sick. It was just a cold, he told the office secretary, but he'd decided to work at home on a lecture for a class at the meeting house:

"The church of the Spirit is always being built," he wrote. "It possesses no other kind of power and authority than the power and authority of personal lives, formed into a community by the vitality of the divine-human encounter.

"Quakers seek to begin with life, not with theory or report. The life is mightier than the book that reports it. The most important thing in the world is that our faith becomes living experience and deed of life."

But another piece of writing was also on Norman's mind.

Just before lunch, sitting on a stool in the kitchen with Anne and Emily, he discussed with his wife an article quoting a French priest whose church in Vietnam had been bombed by U.S. planes. "I have seen my faithful burned up in napalm," the priest was quoted. "I have seen the bodies of women and children blown to bits. Always before my eyes were those burned up women and children."

Norman was deeply moved by this account of the suffering of innocent Vietnamese women and children.

But then over lunch the conversation turned to less distressing matters: plans for the family, a suit that Anne wanted for Christmas and other casual talk.

"His mood was quiet and reflective, not at all morose or depressed," Anne recalls now. "I had absolutely no idea of what would transpire later that day, nor that he had ever before contemplated such a thing."

And somewhere in the conversation she remembers Norman saying this: that he had never felt better or more right. She later interpreted that remark as Norman's way of letting her know that he was sane in what he was about to do.

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