Sign of the Times? Fatal Protest of Income Inequality Largely Ignored by Mainstream Media

Chances are good you’ve never heard the name Leo P. Thornton, even though his story made national news last week. Sort of.

Leo P. Thornton, a twenty-two-year-old from Lincolnwood, Illinois, stood on the steps of the US Capitol just after 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 11—smack-dab in the middle of the annual DC Cherry Blossom Festival—and shot himself in the head.

Channel-surfing on the radio as I was driving up to Baltimore that afternoon, I landed on a local news station and heard a report that a man had shot and killed himself at the Capitol. The area was cordoned off, and the Capitol building was still on lockdown as police inspected a package left behind by the shooter. Traffic was a nightmare everywhere, the report said, as all the folks in DC for the cherry blossoms flooded out of the area. This is a big deal, I thought, and scanned other stations to get more information. I couldn’t find a single other mention of the event anywhere. The next day the Washington Post ran a short article, “Rhythms of Washington return after Illinois man’s suicide outside Capitol,” in which US Capitol Police Chief Kim Dine was quoted as saying that bomb units had inspected a suitcase and backpack left at the scene, and they determined the incident wasn’t related to terrorism. At a news conference, Dine also stated that Thornton had held a sign “related to social justice,” but wouldn’t say exactly what the sign said. (Dine seems to favor obfuscation. Just one day before the shooting it was reported that he’d submitted a letter of resignation as police chief, after which he issued a vague message to his employees expressing his “continued commitment” to the force.) Why not report what the sign said? “Explanations remained elusive Sunday for what may have helped drive…Leo P. Thornton, 22, to commit suicide—and to do so in one of the nation’s iconic places,” the Post article noted. But several paragraphs later: “A witness said people who saw the sign told him it read ‘Tax the one percent.’” ABC News interviewed a witness who confirmed that the sign said “something about taxing the one percent.” Law enforcement sources told ABC News that the sign was taped to Thornton’s hand. Certainly they could confirm what it said. So, again, why the mystery? And why would Thornton’s motive and selection of location seem so elusive? The Capitol is where lawmakers make laws, including those related to taxation. At the time, the US House of Representatives was considering repealing the estate tax (and on April 16 they voted 240-179 to do just that). Isn’t it reasonable to posit the suicide was a protest of the tax system that gives major breaks to the wealthiest Americans? Five days after Thornton’s suicide, Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak mentioned it in connection to another incident that occurred at the Capitol—this one involving Florida mailman Doug Hughes, who on April 15 landed his gyrocopter on the west lawn of the Capitol in hopes of delivering 535 letters to members of Congress urging them to reform campaign finance laws. “This spring looks like it might give us a bumper crop of homegrown, daffy activists who pull both intrepid and tragic stunts,” Dvorak wrote. Her flippancy, along with that of so many individuals’ comments to reports on Thornton’s death (“Occupy Wall Streeters are nut jobs,” “another insane lefty,” etc.) seemed like insufficient commentary, but that’s probably because it seemed to be about the only commentary available from mainstream sources. Granted, Thornton’s death was different than some of the other high-profile shooting deaths of late. He was both the victim and the perpetrator, and no one else was hurt. I do think a case can be made that shooting oneself in public, in view of others, and in this case in view of children, is a violent act. But the American public is subject to violent stories, pictures, and videos all the time. Even suicides are considered news. Naturally, German pilot Andreas Lubitz comes to mind—he killed 149 others along with himself, so it was understandably a huge story. But then the lone suicide of dermatologist-to-the-stars Fredric Brandt on April 5 was also widely reported. To take one’s life for a cause seems unfathomable, even immoral, to most people. Futile, too. Espousing the value of this “one and only life,” humanists certainly don’t support the concept of martyrdom. But I still don’t understand why Leo P. Thornton’s story wasn’t told in more depth and detail. To report the facts is not to sanction them. To explain or hypothesize about someone’s actions is not to valorize them. We know so very little about Leo P. Thornton. We have no idea if he was actively involved with others to address income inequality, or if he took a stand on other social justice issues. We don’t know if he was active on social media or what his interests were. We haven’t heard from any friends about his personality or behavior. We haven’t seen his face. And that’s probably just the way his grieving family wants it. So let me just say this: Leo P. Thornton had a message taped to his hand. His message was tragically delivered and barely received. While we don’t know the rest of it, his story, it would seem, ends there.