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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

Defying bombs, swords and guns,

Made your body a living torch.

His widow was invited by the North Vietnamese government to visit their country. She declined.

"I did not want Norman's sacrifice and our protest of the war to be considered as partisan," Anne says now. "Neither of us favored a military victory by either side in Vietnam. We wanted the war to stop. We felt the United States was wrong to be engaged militarily in any way in Vietnam."

But in the weeks and months after Norman's death, there was a wide division of opinion in this country regarding his action. In letters to newspapers and magazines, many derided his action as "crazy" and contrary to the best interests of the country; some called it "macabre," and deplored his act of "suicide" as "sacrilegious."

There was also marked dissension among the 420 members of Baltimore's Stony Run Meeting regarding what their fellow Quaker had done.

"There were members of the Meeting who were horrified, scandalized and very strongly opposed to what Norman had done," says Sam Legg, who is still a member of that Meeting. "As Quakers, we don't believe in the taking of human life. Anyone's human life -- including one's own. So we were all agreed that we wished Norman had not done this and that he had committed an act that went against the things we hold very dear."

"I don't think as a Meeting we were taking sides. We were hit hard by this thing, and we talked about what was good, if anything, about it and what was bad about it. We tried to talk all around it so that various points of view could come out. Which again is the Quaker way of doing things: throw it all out there and hope you can get some leading from God that will come to a decision that everyone in the group can accept."

At a gathering several months after Norman's death, members of the Stony Run Meeting held their first formal exploration of the reasons for his self-immolation and the value of such a course.

"It gets back to your basic conception of what life is all about," concluded Henry E. Niles, who led the discussion. "Why are we here anyway? Do Quakers really believe in the Inner Light? Do we really get spiritual guidance? What is our scale of values? Do we believe there is anything more important than living?"


Robert McNamara admits he weeps in public occasionally when he mentions Norman Morrison and the letter from Anne. "I get very emotional," he says. "I get very teary. I consider it a weakness. And those particular words -- the words of forgiveness Anne wrote -- do make me emotional."

In his book, Mr. McNamara writes some words of his own that are likely to elicit emotional responses from at least 58,000 American families; words that if followed by deeds would have changed their lives. And that of Norman Morrison's family as well.

"I believe we could and should have withdrawn from South Vietnam either in late 1963 amid the turmoil following Diem's assassination or in late 1964 or early 1965 in the face of increasing political and military weakness in South Vietnam," Mr. McNamara writes now of his beliefs.

Thirty years ago, Norman Morrison wrote this of his beliefs: "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."

Thirty years ago, Norman Morrison acted on his beliefs.

"Norman Morrison was right; there are enormous evils that we should be doing something about, and we don't," says John Roemer, who teaches a class at Park School on the ethics of violence and nonviolence. "When he did this, most of the people who died in Vietnam had not yet died."

Occasionally, in his class Mr. Roemer uses the example of his old friend to explore how far one should go in protest.

"I tell the kids here that at some point you may be required by the exigencies of your time to come down from the mountain and sacrifice yourself -- or at least part of your life -- because there are certain moral evils that cannot be countenanced. Norman saw them acutely. The rest of us tried to ignore them. We refused to accept his challenge.

"We've got to come to some kind of accommodation where we say, 'I can't do what he did, but I've got to do something more than what I'm doing.' I think that's his message and his meaning."

Emily, the child who was there when her father allowed his life to speak for him, sums up Norman's act this way:

"I do not believe in suicide, and I don't believe in war where we torture others and ourselves for the sake of some belief that death will bring a better life. But soldiers believed that and committed 'suicide' every day in a different way. They gave their lives for what they believed and for 'their' country.

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