MITCH SNYDER'S discharge Friday from Howard University Hospital concluded a seemingly glorious chapter in the career of the Washington activist and leader of the Community for Creative Non-Violence. The homeless in Washington will have a renovated facility, financed by the federal government. Despite official opposition, the local initiative -- Proposition 17 -- declaring the "right" of the homeless to shelter was overwhelmingly approved by the voters of the District of Columbia.
And Snyder, fortunately, did not have to go all the way and make good on his threat to starve himself to death to win federal funding for the CCNV shelter.
The outcome, though, is less troubling than the route chosen to get there. How long will it be before Snyder will again threaten us with moral overkill to accomplish his purpose?
Snyder's methods and style are the stuff of martyrdom. His suffering has been described both in print and in the electronic media in religious terms, replete with references to salvation, redemption and grace. Yet no matter how noble his aim, there is still only one word for putting yourself to death: suicide.
Suicide in the young and the healthy is the ultimate tantrum. When it succeeds, it leaves behind grief, guilt and shame. When it fails, psychiatrists tell us, it is often because it is meant to fail. In either event, suicide is a demand for attention that has no equal, unless we move into the realm of violence directed against others.
Across the country, we seem to be experiencing an outbreak of teenage suicides. One danger of Mitch Snyder's bravura performance -- spotlighted on CBS' 60 Minutes and ABC's Nightline as well as The Washington Post and local television -- is its potential effect on the young. Last year, government statistics say, there were 5,200 established teen-aged suicides. The actual number, according to The Washington Post, may be three times that figure.
Guns aside, kids these days are driving their motor bikes off bridges, flinging themselves off buildings, overdosing, running their cars across the median strip and -- here it comes -- starving themselves into anorexic coma. It is a melancholy picture and it's not going to get any brighter with Snyder as the up-and- coming role model.
No one can deny Snyder his victory. Without money or clout, he took over a faltering organization and molded it into a force for good in Washington, where the homeless sleep within view of the State Department, the White House and the Capitol. He wangled the old Federal City College building out of the administration and kept it off the auction block through the winter. Then he bargained for an extension through spring and summer and won, sheltering hundreds of the homeless and feeding them with food scavenged from churches, organizations and dumpsters.
And, while he prepared his final push, he won voting rights for the District's street people and haled the authorities into court to keep alive the proposition guaranteeing to the homeless the right of shelter. That accomplished, Mitch Snyder told the world that he would fast unto death unless the Federal City College facility was rehabilitated to the tune of $5 million.
In the process, Snyder became a celebrity -- a Page-One, 60- Minutes, stop-the-presses, let-me- publish-your-story celebrity. He is treated as a moral hero. In fact, however, Snyder was not only threatening to commit suicide if he didn't get his way but to take others with him. There were 11 other members of the CCNV on Snyder's hunger strike. Who knows their names? They are anonymous. What made Snyder alone the focus of the drama was his deteriorating health -- his slide toward death -- which was at least in part the result of two earlier, and less noble, tantrums.
Snyder permanently damaged his eyesight in 1982, when he starved himself for 64 days because he wouldn't countenance the commissioning of a Navy submarine christened Corpus Christi (Latin for "body of Christ"). He won that battle, too, if you don't mind a nuclear sub called City of Corpus Christi.
His first hunger strike was leveled against Georgetown's Holy Trinity church. Its aim: to force the church to disgorge funds for the poor. Snyder lost that one. The threat of martyrdom doesn't intimidate the Roman Catholic Church.
Hunger strikes are a tactic of last resort, appropriate to Mahatma Ghandi's India and Andrei Sakharov's Russia. As Martin Luther King Jr. showed us and any lobbyist can demonstrate, the American system can be dealt with in a less draconian manner.
Mitch Snyder has shown himself to be a master at the manipulation of the system. In this country you don't feed hundreds of the homeless on loaves and fishes. You deal. You hustle. You muscle.
What are we to make of Snyder's latest feat? If we treat him as a hero, we sanction his tactics and cheapen human life. We capitulate to a fancy form of terrorism. In truth, Snyder hijacked us by threatening to commit suicide and leave the rest of us prostrate with guilt, grief and shame. It cost the Reagan administration several million dollars that it should have budgeted routinely. And it made a mockery of Secretary of State George Shultz's anti-terrorist boasts.
Snyder's record shows that although he has righted a great wrong this time, he is equally capable of doing the wrong thing the wrong way. Unless society stops celebrating Snyder's flirtations with death, there's always the threat of another hunger strike over issues that simply aren't worth dying for. Given his present celebrity, Snyder can summon Mike Wallace or Ted Koppel and hit prime time in the first week.
Eventually, though, this tactic will pall and Snyder will have to find other ways of grabbing our attention. What is CCNV to do for an encore when small-scale hunger strikes fail? And where is the public going to find outlets for its love affair with death?