It’s always easier to start a fire than to put one out.

Moshe Silman, who hung on for six days before succumbing to injuries he incurred when he set himself on fire at last Saturday’s social justice protest, meant to go out with a bang, but one wonders whether he considered that others would follow his lead, or cared.

Silman’s highly public act prompted six copycat instances. In five cases, intervention prevented the would-be suicides by fire from actually setting themselves aflame. Akiva Mapay wasn’t so lucky. On Sunday, the 45-year-old disabled IDF veteran doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire at a bus stop in Yahud. He suffered burns over 80% of his body and is hospitalized in serious condition.

Of course, fingers are being pointed. An image, eerily reminiscent of Malcolm MacDowell in “A Clockwork Orange,” calling social justice guru Daphne Leef a “murderer” has been circulating on the Internet, causing Ms. Leef to file a police complaint and post a message on her Facebook page exhorting the public “not to harm themselves, please.”

Leef — while she can be accused of many things — is no murderer. However misguided, the social justice movement isn’t responsible for these acts of desperation. Its willingness, however, to turn Silman into the martyr du jour, should serve as a heads-up. If the leaders of the movement really wanted to honor his memory, they wouldn’t be turning him into political capital.

Analyses and op-eds about the recent trend of self-immolation abound. (It’s interesting to note that Hebrew has no reflexive form of the verb l’hatzit — to set on fire.) However – and please correct me if I’m wrong – I have yet to see any real criticism of the media’s role in all of this.

News organizations that operate under the principle of freedom of the press do not ignore stories because of their possible ramifications. A person who sets himself aflame as a last scream for help is headline news, and must be covered. The adage “if it bleeds, it leads” goes double when people opt to burn themselves to death.

But how can terrible acts of pain like Silman’s or Mapay’s be reported without sparking copycats? The press must overcome its squeamishness and tell it like it is. Writers should interview doctors and nurses who work in the nation’s burn units and people who have been treated for third-degree burns. The pain is undoubtedly difficult to convey in words, so all such stories should be accompanied by photos –graphic, unpixillated photos that might give potential self-immolators pause.

Doctors at Sheba Hospital attend to Moshe Silman a few days before his death (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Doctors at Sheba Hospital attend to Moshe Silman a few days before his death (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Incidentally, if this wave of people setting themselves on fire isn’t curbed immediately, it will only be a matter of time before an auto-immolator winds up setting someone else on fire, as well. That’s not an exaggeration – both Silman and Mapay chose very crowded public places as the scene for their suicide attempts. A little accelerant splashes on a passer-by, a gust of wind – and a person who had no intention of harming him or herself is sentenced to excruciating pain and disfigurement.

Self-immolators are neither heroes nor martyrs, and cannot be portrayed as such. The media has fanned the flames, and the media must help douse them.

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