Sun. May 26th, 2024

CONTENT WARNING: This article mentions self-immolation, self-harm and suicide.

On April 9, 2003, just weeks into the U.S. invasion of Iraq, United States infantrymen tore down a bronze statue of Saddam Hussein in the capital city of Baghdad, symbolizing the end of his reign in the country, and the beginning of theirs. Two days later, in Gaza, as the second intifada reached a fever pitch, Tom Hurndall, a British photojournalist and activist against the Israeli occupation, was shot in the head by an IDF sniper. After nine months in a coma, he succumbed to his injuries, and died at the age of 22. Taysir Hayb, the Israeli sergeant who shot Hurndall,  said the state of Israel had a policy set in place of shooting at unarmed civilians according to The Guardian. Less than a month before that, on March 16, while protesting the IDF’s demolishing of Palestinian homes, Rachel Corrie, a 23-year old American student and member of the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement (ISM), was crushed to death by an Israeli armored bulldozer.

War has no winners, and violence gives birth to more violence, and these are the circumstances in which Aaron Bushnell was brought up. As a member of the United States Air Force, Aaron had joined the military for the same reason many of us in this country do — to potentially find an escape from financial hardship. After the murder of George Floyd, he began to be extremely disillusioned by the state, and the military in particular. He grew a keen understanding of the immense suffering in the world exacted by the United States and its proxies, and felt compelled to do something, anything about it. As he walked towards the Israeli embassy in DC, he is recorded saying, “I will no longer be complicit in this genocide,” according to The New York Times. While he spoke specifically about the genocide in Gaza, I believe he was also speaking to the genocide of all oppressed people. I think he understood the chain of human suffering to have many links that each lead back to each other, and hoped in his final act of protest, it would be the catalyst for a breakage to occur.

Many will argue that what Bushnell did was simply an act of suicide. A tragic loss, but nevertheless an act of self harm committed by an ill man. I think this deliberate obfuscation not only aims to dismiss the valid critiques Aaron had about the country he called home and the military to which he was a reluctant soldier, but also attempts to create an either-or scenario; that he was either mentally and emotionally suffering, or deluded and irrational. I argue that perhaps it was his despair, his suffering that evoked his final call to action. This is a language that is not foreign to me.

The first time I ever contemplated dying by suicide, I was about 13-years-old. I had recently been diagnosed with a musculoskeletal condition that would leave me with chronic pain and a limp for the rest of my life. When I think back on the before and after of it all, that is the singular event that comes to mind — there was who I was before the diagnosis, and all the possibilities that came with it, and then there was the aftermath; the dissociative effect of seeing my reflection in the mirror and knowing that I would never be able to look at myself the same way again.

There is a particular kind of grief that comes with acquiring a disability later in life. For me, it was mourning the loss of lives I thought I could have lived, or knew I couldn’t anymore. Some were fantastical in retrospect — childhood dreams of playing football for Ohio State, or training for the Olympics. Others seemed integral to the fabric of my personhood, and felt like a rip through me when I realized they would forever be memories, like riding a bike. I saw other people with more ambulatory conditions (survivors of accidents that left them wheelchair-bound, folks with cerebral palsy) and envied them, for they at least had the luxury of sympathy. Then I’d feel myself washed over with the sensation of shame and disgust at the thought. My family didn’t know what to do with my illness, except pretend it wasn’t there. I had gotten corrective surgery and could walk on my own despite my limp, so it was easier to meet my tears with the placation of, “You’re fine,” or, “Look on the bright side, at least it wasn’t worse.”

I felt like the world had failed me, and in my darkest moments, I felt as though maybe I was simply not fit for the life I had; the body I found myself inhabiting like a child in a dark room. I was afraid of myself, and the thoughts I carried. At some point, I began to see suicide merely as a respite from the anguish that had completely consumed me. I say all this to say that, perhaps I feel an ineffable kinship with Aaron at the thought of someone else being so existentially disappointed, and inundated by the world around them, that they would take it upon themselves to commit one of the most extreme acts of human autonomy one can do.

Journalist Andre Henry, on the legacy of Bushnell, writes for Medium, “When we deny the possibility that mental anguish is both rational, reasonable, and revolutionary, we empower the stigma our opponents weaponize against us. We also make it harder for more people to connect the dots between their personal suffering, the systems that produce and maintain their suffering, and the means to mitigate that misery — all because we’re afraid of some bad-faith actor calling us ‘ill.’” When Aaron live-streamed his last moments for the world to see, I believe he was challenging us to be brave enough to fight against the systems that he no longer found himself able to live under. Or maybe, he knew there were others like him desperate for change, and through his death, wished to inspire those to take action to create a world that would be more bearable to endure.

Time will pass, and Aaron’s life will long become a fixture in the house of human memory, but may we who still find ourselves amongst the living never allow ourselves to be permissive of the status quo. As the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King said in a 1966 speech, “There are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of goodwill will be maladjusted.”

May Aaron’s memory continue to be a blessing, and a reminder for us all to continue the good work; to rage against the machine; to look at the face of injustice and depravity and yell back to it, “not in my name.” We all share a moral obligation to speak out when a member of our human family is being harmed, if for no other reason than the simple fact that my freedom and well-being is absolutely contingent on that of my brother’s, and if I believe anything that implies otherwise, then that is as violent as any bullet. That, as clear to me now as anything could be, is the most deluded and irrational thing of all.

If you or someone you know is struggling with these issues, we encourage seeking help from a qualified professional. You can call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, and if you’re a student at West Chester University, you can contact Counseling & Psychological Services at (610) 436-2301.


Dagmawe Berhanu is a fourth-year Urban Community Change.

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