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Essayist Reflects on the Act of Taking a Life

NewsHour Essayist Richard Rodriguez talks about suicide and the public and private faces of this act.

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  • RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, NewsHour Essayist:

    Suicide, the self extinguishing the self, is an act most private. It is also a public event.

    On a spring day, I seem to remember a warm afternoon, as tourists were walking, as a freighter glided through the gate headed to China, as the early commuters were rushing home to Marin, a young woman climbed the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge.

    A remarkable new documentary, "The Bridge," wonders about the fatal attraction of the Golden Gate for people seeking a grandiose exit. Men and women journey from all parts of America to kill themselves here.

    It is as though the tortured personality has fled, leaving the windows and doors of this life unlocked for relatives and friends and strangers to gaze through.

    Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Primo Levi, Ernest Hemingway, these public people killed themselves in private torment, away from our eyes. Ever after, we have read their abandoned pages, remembering the lake, the oven door, the staircase, the gun.

    On that spring day, I was jogging on this path near the bridge. I remember passing a painter at his easel. The newspaper the next day noted she had waved to a workman on the bridge, and then she stepped onto the air.

    The most lethal weapon in the world today walks into a crowded cafe or boards a bus in Bali or London, in Baghdad or Tel Aviv. The bomber screams praise of Allah, explodes all the laughter of the city block.

    The living cannot agree. Some in the world call him a suicide bomber, describing a double sin against life. Others deny that his act was a suicide, which is a sin in Islam, but say the man was a martyr who sought not his own death but the destruction of Islam's enemies.

    In the Palestinian village, the dead boy is celebrated. His family proudly displays his photograph.

    In wartime, often a different understanding applies to the act of self-destruction. Japan, for example, has ritualized suicide within ceremonies of restorative honor. Novelist Yukio Mishima prepared for his suicide before the nation — suicide, a spectacle — after failing in his attempt to restore the feudal order of Japan.

    Many Americans still remember the terrible efficiency of the kamikaze, the band of air force pilots whose mission it was to crash planes into moving targets.

    We recoil from some accounts of mass suicide, such as Jonestown. We are shocked by the village of the dead.

    But to inspire the young, nations tell stories of mass suicide, like that at the Fortress of Masada, where a community of Jews chose suicide rather than enslavement by the Romans.

    Mexicans remember Los Ninos Heroes, several young cadets who fought off advancing American troops in Mexico City. The last boy alive wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and flung himself from the parapet into patriotic legend.

    Adolescence is a dangerous season for suicide, perhaps because the young do not believe they will outlive their sorrow. There are terrible instances in high schools, where one suicide inspires others. A kind of permission passes in the hallway like a virus.

    Most suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge happen in daylight. Most are from the eastern side of the bridge, facing the city.

    All these years later in nightmare, I remember how she fell from the sky. Upon impact, her body made not a sound. She looked on the side of the hill like a young woman who had fallen softly asleep. Suicide is no simple private matter.

    It is possible, in this century of religious frenzy, the world could end with some young man killing himself and all of us in the name of God. The last irony could be that no one will be left alive to argue whether the bomber's act was a martyrdom or a suicide.

    I'm Richard Rodriguez.