Salvo 03.01.2024 5 minutes

Totally Useless

Hundreds mourn US airman who self-immolated at Israeli Embassy in protest of Gaza war

Aaron Bushnell embraced his unworthiness as a white man and expressed it in a futile gesture of sacrifice.

I have no definite proof that Aaron Bushnell was mentally ill. I am not going to use mental illness as an excuse for either his evil deeds or the social forces that drove him to take his own life. The 25-year old member of the U.S. Air Force donned his fatigues and set himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy. In addition to live streaming his gruesome demise, he left a post on Facebook—a social media suicide note. Why was he so desperate to be heard?

During the self-immolation episode, Bushnell first declared that he “will no longer be complicit in genocide” then yelled, “Free Palestine.” His Facebook message further elaborated:

Many of us like to ask ourselves, “What would I do if I was alive during slavery? Or the Jim Crow South? Or apartheid? What would I do if my country was committing genocide?” The answer is, you’re doing it. Right now.

The entire statement is a reiteration of an intersectional cliché that equates all injustice in history to the latest cause, be it the death of George Floyd or poorly substantiated accusations of date rape. The last example of injustice—genocide—is a blood libel, the idea that wicked Jews are waging a campaign of extermination of the Palestinian people.

If Israel is trying to commit genocide, it’s comically bad at it. It certainly has the means, yet the Jewish state warns Gaza civilians of upcoming action and develops plans to evacuate them. It targets terrorists only and calls off bombings when human shields are present. It allows trucks carrying humanitarian aid to enter Gaza even if Gazans refuse to release Israeli hostages.

Subsequently, the ratio of civilian to combatant casualties in Gaza is very low. The American author Salo Aizenberg calculated that, given the latest number of the dead claimed by Hamas and the estimated number of terrorists given by the Israeli Defense Forces, that ratio now stands at 1.4:1. A military man like Bushnell should have known that this figure is historically low for urban combat and that it speaks to the IDF’s effort to spare those not actively involved in fighting. Yet in an act of desperation he gave his life to promote the blood libel.

The list of historic injustices Bushnell chose in his final rant stands in opposition to his act. Slavery and Jim Crow ended without any incidents of self-immolation. Apartheid in South Africa saw a lot of immolation, but typically when Winnie Mandela was executing her enemies. Across the West and the Muslim world, suicide is either forbidden or viewed with horror, even while risking one’s life to confront injustice is lauded.

Bushnell’s self-inflicted death represents a sharp break from the Western tradition. It’s death fetishism that has very few precedents in our tradition. But Bushnell evidently wanted a break from his American heritage. Sure, he was a member of the armed forces, the fact that he himself chose to highlight at the time of his death. But his parading of his uniform aside, the young man was no patriot. He was an anarchist who left multiple Reddit posts calling for the abolition of police and the U.S. armed forces, and he talked to his friends about leaving the military.

His social media activity shows him siding with Hamas and praising the terrorist group’s raid on Israel—a typical position for a communist, many of whom have been energized by the Simchat Torah massacre. Yet his worldview was not informed solely by the conflict in the Middle East, and it would be wrong to say that Hamas radicalized him.

His Reddit activity reveals that, like many other Gen Z men and women, Bushnell was something of a full-blown intersectionalist. He subscribed to the entire spectrum of woke beliefs—he railed against TERFs, fatphobia, and even speciesism, warning his comrade against “comparing humans we don’t like to animals.”

Bushnell’s last entry was on the topic of how “whiteness erases culture.” He himself was white and “cis-identified”—in other words, the lowest of the low in the world of intersectionality. On every issue, he was just an “ally,” so total self-negation was required by his position within the ideology he embraced.

This is where antizionism comes in. In her essay on feminism’s digression from the ideals of the Enlightenment into post-colonial queerness and antisemitism, Kara Jesella notes that contemporary academic feminists idolize the persona of the female suicide bomber because its violent irrationality destroys Western norms:

They are the apotheosis of what queer had always tried to be: not so much about sexual identity, but about “resistant bodily practices” and deviance itself—this time, across international boundaries.

I doubt Bushnell was influenced by academic feminism. But the late serviceman embraced violence. In his Reddit posts he opposed the gun-grabbing Left for being naïve about the needs of the revolution. Moreover, like academic feminists he was fascinated with non-Western ways of being. It makes sense that he was looking for a violent act of cultural appropriation. It also makes sense that he turned it against his own body.

The comparison he drew between himself and the abolitionists and Freedom Riders suggests a delusion of grandeur. His live streamed self-immolation is the kind of terminal social media narcissism we came to expect from the young. It’s easy to be derisive about a young man who desperately wanted to be acknowledged, but it’s a normal human desire. Unfortunately, our society—or at least the subculture to which he belonged—constantly told him, the white man, to trim his ego. Eventually the Palestinian cause offered him an option of meaningful annihilation.

Many prominent figures praised him. The nasty washed out rocker Roger Waters called him an “All American Hero.” Socialist writer Cornell West eulogized: “Let us never forget the extraordinary courage and commitment of brother Aaron Bushnell who died for truth and justice! I pray for his precious loved ones! Let us rededicate ourselves to genuine solidarity with Palestinians undergoing genocidal attacks in real time!” I’m not sure what these comfortable old people intend to do besides encourage other disposable youth to commit suicide. On the other hand, many social media accounts insisted that those praising him need to stop saying “rest in power Aaron Bushnell” because such language is reserved for black and brown people.

At the end, Bushnell’s story is not one of heroic self-sacrifice but of a superfluous young man. His self-hate, blended with trendy antizionism, found respite in Palestine-inspired violence.  

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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