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broken society

Bushnell’s Self-Immolation Is a Horrifying Symptom of Our Political Dysfunction

American society doesn’t know how to respond to tragedies like this one.

People in rain jackets light candles and crouch in front of pictures and flowers.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
A vigil for U.S. Airman Aaron Bushnell in New York City

Earlier this week, a 25-year-old active-duty member of the U.S. Air Force walked up to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., and lit himself on fire. “I am about to engage in an extreme act of protest,” Aaron Bushnell said just before the act. “But compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers, it’s not extreme at all. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal. Free Palestine!” He succumbed to his injuries Sunday evening.

Nearly five years earlier, in April 2018, 60-year-old civil rights lawyer and environmentalist David Buckel sent a letter to prominent media outlets before lighting himself on fire in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, leaving an apologetic note to first responders about the mess. “As an attorney, I worked eight years for others’ freedom from poverty, and thirteen years for others’ freedom from discrimination,” his letter read. “But work for freedom fails as we slowly turn Earth into a prison. Our present grows more desperate; our future needs more than what we’ve been doing.”

Like Buckel’s death, Bushnell’s has kicked off a debate on social media and in think pieces about how to understand what he did: Was he just mentally ill? Did his final act have to do with his upbringing on a religious compound, as The Washington Post seemed to suggest, or his anarchism? Does honoring his legacy glamorize suicide or encourage more destructive acts? Is self-immolation a legitimate form of protest?

My job is similar to the ones held by people who wrote those takes, but I find it hard to think about Bushnell’s or Buckel’s actions. Mostly, I feel a wrenching ache in the chest. It’s an ache for life lost and loved ones left mourning, and for whatever profound pain leads someone to take their own life. For those of us who didn’t know Buckel or Bushnell personally—who have no special insight into their struggles—we can only take them at the words they left behind: a horror at being complicit in the slaughter of Palestinians “at the hands of the colonizers,” as Bushnell said. “Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather,” Buckel wrote elsewhere in his letter. “Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result—my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”

These sorts of acts trouble and reverberate with us in part because of their innate horror, but perhaps also because they personalize sufferings that can seem too vast to wrap our heads around if they’re experienced largely as abstractions—through headlines, for instance. To experience either the climate crisis or Israel’s genocidal war in the abstract is an extreme luxury—all the more so given our government’s outsize role in fueling both. Palestinians who’ve lost family, friends, homes, and entire generations to the Israeli government’s bombs and guns do not experience this suffering abstractly. Neither, likely, do many of those who’ve already had their lives upended or cut short by climate-fueled storms, floods, and fires in this country or halfway around the world. For some, Buckel’s and Bushnell’s final acts might resonate for another reason: because of a recognizable desperation over how to stop more of that suffering from happening.

It is difficult to live in a world with this much suffering, and profoundly sad that anyone’s empathy can become so unbearable that they would end their own life. Those in the United States who, like Buckel and Bushnell, empathize with those affected by this country’s policies in the Middle East and lack of action on climate change have much more often channeled that empathy in other ways: The last few months have seen a surge of mass mobilizations, street protests, and organizing for a cease-fire among Palestine solidarity activists in the U.S. There’s been an uptick of militant climate protests over the last several years here too; countless young climate activists I’ve spoken to in the past decade have described their involvement in those efforts as a lifeline.

The thing about living in a sick world, though, is that none of us get to choose how other people deal with the symptoms. So long as there remains such a yawning gap between what’s needed and what’s happening—to free Palestine, address the climate crisis, or otherwise—it stands to reason that people will respond to increasingly extreme scales of suffering in increasingly extreme ways, whatever pundits might have to say about it.

Arguably more disturbing than what some might diagnose as Bushnell’s or Buckel’s excess of empathy is the endemic and entirely acceptable lack of it from so many people, including those in positions of power. Young men around Bushnell’s age in the Israel Defense Forces are making giddy TikToks of themselves laughing and dancing as they kidnap and bomb Palestinians. The United States keeps sending them billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to continue. Are those Israeli soldiers more well adjusted than Buckel? Does the mental health of the American bureaucrats arranging arms deals demand less scrutiny than Bushnell’s?

As Bushnell burned in front of the Israeli Embassy, one Secret Service Agent responding to the scene attempted to douse the flames. Another pointed a gun at him, yelling commands to get on the ground. It’s a hard image to shake from the mind: Even if it is a matter of Secret Service policy to point a gun at anything that could be construed as dangerous, did the agent have any flash of recognition that the person in front of him was experiencing extraordinary pain? Did he see him as a person at all, or only a threat? U.S. Secret Service Communications Chief Anthony Guglielmi told Reason that “this situation was unpredictable and occurred rapidly. In that instant, the level of threat to the public and the embassy was unknown, and our officers acted swiftly and professionally.” In other words: job well done.

Pointing a gun at a man who’s burning alive would seem about as good a metaphor as any to describe how the U.S. is responding to the crises that Buckel and Bushnell said drove them to end their lives in the ways that they did. U.S. military aid flows freely to Israel as it continues its war on Palestine; our government has also opted to cut off support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which is now struggling to deliver lifesaving aid to Gazans. As millions are being forced from their homes by devastating storms, droughts, and U.S-imposed sanctions in Latin America, Democrats and Republicans alike are clamoring to beef up already bloated security forces at the southern border and cut off opportunities for asylum-seekers. The Department of Defense, meanwhile, is busy drafting contingency plans for how to keep its armed forces in fighting shape as the world warms. Rather than making any attempt to start phasing down record oil and gas production, policymakers that ostensibly care about the climate crisis are cheering it on. Do they see those on the other end of their decisions as real people capable of experiencing extraordinary pain? Or are these crises just more threats to be handled down the barrel of a gun?