Aaron Bushnell’s Death Can’t Rightly Be Called An Act Of Suicide

Listen to a reading of this article (reading by Tim Foley):

There’s a deeply moving interview on Democracy Now with a friend of Aaron Bushnell, the US airman who fatally self-immolated outside the Israeli embassy while screaming “Free Palestine” in protest of his government’s facilitation of the genocide in Gaza.

Bushnell’s friend, a conscientious objector named Levi Pierpont, met Bushnell in 2020 during basic training at an air force base in Texas. When you watch the interview you can immediately see why the two clicked; Pierpont has the same tender, gentle air to him that Bushnell displayed in his final video, very much unlike what you picture when you think of members of the world’s most murderous and destructive military. Neither of them belonged there, and they each took their exit in their own way.

Toward the end of the interview, longtime Democracy Now host Amy Goodman asked Pierpont a question which drew an answer that’s worth highlighting and reflecting upon.

“Would Aaron have described this as suicide?” Goodman asked Pierpont.

“No, absolutely not,” Pierpont replied, adding, “He didn’t have thoughts of suicide. He had thoughts of justice. That’s what this was about. It wasn’t about his life. It was about using his life to send a message.”

This point is worthy of our consideration at this time because as soon as it became clear what Aaron Bushnell had done and the impact it was having on our collective consciousness, there was a mad rush to pathologize his act of protest and frame it as something other than what it was. The phrase “glorifying suicide” came up over and over again from Israel apologists desperate to mitigate the damage Bushnell’s act had done to US and Israeli information interests, and we constantly saw Bushnell described as mentally ill and suicidal by spinmeisters acting in bad faith.

What Bushnell did isn’t what people think of when they hear the word “suicide”. It’s not the sort of thing suicide prevention hotlines are set up to deter. It’s not what mental health clinics are built to prevent. It’s not what the designation “suicidal” is intended to point to.

When you say someone is suicidal, you are saying they don’t want to be alive anymore and are in the process of making plans to bring about that result. They want to kill themselves because, in whatever way and for whatever reason, it hurts to live.

That isn’t what happened with Aaron Bushnell. There is no indication that he was mentally unwell, or under any psychological stress beyond that which was inflicted upon him by the moral quandary of being a member of a war machine that is backing an active genocide. From what we can tell about his internal state given the information available to us, Bushnell would have been perfectly happy to go on living. He just prioritized peace and justice over his own life. He was no more suicidal than a rescue worker who died trying to save the lives of others.

In the case of suicide as we conventionally understand it, death is the goal. It is the both the means and the end, in and of itself. Bushnell’s self-immolation was a means to a very different end: a free Palestine and the cessation of an ongoing genocide.

Such an act can’t rightly be lumped in with those who kill themselves because they can’t bear to go on living. It is different in every meaningful way. It is different in how it is experienced. It is different in how we should regard it as a society. It is different in its goals. It is different in its effects. The only thing it has in common with the conventional understanding of suicide is that it was brought about by one’s own hand.

I don’t enjoy quibbling about definitions or playing pedantic word games. Those who wish to frame what Aaron Bushnell did will object that it was a suicide per the technical dictionary definition, and they can feel as correct in doing so as they want to feel. My point here is that their continued use of that word in this context is done in bad faith, and in a way that is not conducive to truth and understanding. Far more conducive to truth and understanding would be to call what Bushnell did exactly what he himself called it: an extreme act of protest.

I will leave you with a quote that’s been rattling around in my head these last few days by Ita Ford, an American Catholic nun who in 1980 was raped and murdered by a US-backed death squad in El Salvador:

“I hope that you come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you. Something worth living for — maybe even worth dying for. Something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead. I can’t tell you what it might be — that’s for you to find, to choose, to love. I can just encourage you to start looking and support you in the search.”


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