Speaking Corpses

Secondhand Myths in the Digital Era: On Aaron Bushnell’s Suicide

Is the worth of a cause altered by the fact that some one had laid down his life for it?—An error that becomes honorable is simply an error that has acquired one seductive charm the more.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist

Minutes after he killed himself via self-immolation outside the Israeli embassy in Washington DC, Aaron Bushnell’s gesture had already entered the crucible of social media. Memes on X emerged and circulated appending Free Palestine slogans to graphic images of Bushnell’s burning body. One AI-generated version added a helmet and gun and a Palestine boy in a keffiyeh honoring the act. The now-familiar #RestInPower hashtag bestowed moral solemnity on his suicide. Here was Thich Quang Duc, but in a digital era characterized by anxious self-consciousness of its participation in mythmaking. One user wrote, “At least he did something for his name to be remembered, his soul in the prayers of millions today. You and I just sat on Twitter.” 

Right-wingers quickly responded as well, attacking the delusions of a white man who had aligned himself with a cause that made no effort to conceal its loathing for people like him. After all, it took less than 12 hours for the ethno-narcissist faction of the Left to begin reprimanding users for using #RestInPower for a white man. One account tweeted that “he lived in power: The world exists as the way it does because of white militaristic imperialism.” Elsewhere an academic wrote Bushnell’s reasoning was “rational and clear” and that his actions “showed moral clarity.” Did the Professor’s swift judgment belie some satisfaction in a white military man killing himself? Either way, less than a day after his death, Bushnell’s action already resembled a suicidal sacrifice on the pyre of leftism rather than a misguided act of protest.

Still, one can recognize the immense determination required to immolate oneself – especially for a cause so far removed from the motives that have historically compelled men to give up their lives. It was this disturbing aspect that struck many, including myself, upon hearing the news. But if both sides were eager to render Bushnell a caricature, wasn’t this also because his final act was the deliberate effacement of his own personhood? It wasn’t a human chanting “Free Palestine,” but a speaking corpse.

Nietzsche wrote about such speaking corpses in The Antichrist; he called this figure “the man of faith.” The inheritor of Judeo-Christian slave morality, “the ‘believer’ of any sort, is necessarily a dependent man,” he wrote, “such a man cannot posit himself as a goal, nor can he find goals within himself.” What Nietzsche presciently identified was a prototype of the jihadist, that type of postmodern rabid fanatic who “can only be a means to an end; he must be used up; he needs some one to use him up.”

Posts dug up from Bushnell’s (now scrubbed) Reddit account revealed the sentiments characteristic of a man immersed in the social justice movements of his day and who participated in leftist community organizations. “There are no Israeli ‘civilians’” he said in one. In another, he claimed that “‘democracy’ is a sham that was invented by the first great slave state of history, and not coincidentally adopted by the last.” Another read “‘common sense gun control’ should mean disarming the police and military first. Which means abolishing them.” Bushnell also occasionally expressed his dissatisfaction with military life. Describing a contentious interaction with a superior, he wrote, “I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt and treat them like a human being, but they did not do the same for me. They went out of their way to treat me like a lesser person.”

A vigil in memory of Aaron Bushnell, New York City

It is now known that Bushnell was raised in an insular charismatic Christian community, the Community for Jesus, where congregants live on church-owned grounds in Massachusetts. There’s no doubt that Bushnell’s ideological fervor mirrored the pietist worldview he renounced. Having subscribed to the leftist tenets of faith, Bushnell demonstrated obedience to its core message in his suicide. “Whiteness erases culture,” reads one of Bushnell’s final posts:

“Conforming to an authoritarian, prescribed culture such as, I dunno, settler colonial culture, requires the sacrifice of ethnic culture and the autonomy that creates it. And this tends to create a negative feedback loop where, lacking culture, members of the in-group seek to fill the void by further conforming to the prescribed culture by shedding their actual cultural heritage and their ability to create it.”

What Bushnell calls “settler colonial culture” is cast as a pathogenic force that pervades society, infecting its ethnic components with a self-destroying impulse to fortify itself. Nietzsche would have no trouble perceiving that Bushnell’s “settler colonial culture” was not a diagnostic but rather a symptom of the morbid self-hatred endemic to decadent European societies. Still, Bushnell was onto something with his recognition that American culture weakened its native population’s claims for political legitimacy and self-determination. Did Bushnell’s third-worldism perhaps sublimate a deeper disturbance at his own deracinated identity?

If Bushnell was right that “whiteness erases culture,” the rationale extends back to darker and stranger origins than Western Faustian imperialism. “These stealthy worms,” Nietzsche writes, “which under the cover of night, mist and duplicity, crept upon every individual, sucking him dry of all earnest interest in real things, of all instinct for reality.” When natural instinct is drained of man, he seeks what Nietzsche characterizes as the “pale, sickly, idiotically ecstatic state[s] of existence” that comprise modern-day mysticism. In Bushnell’s case, this experience was found in the fanaticism of progressive mass movements: “the energized feeling of being the crowd at a protest when a random cop starts telling you to move.”

French philosopher Georges Bataille writes about the experience of the transcendent as a heady intoxicant that, in its many forms, always approximates death. Human sacrifice fascinated the heterodox thinker, whose secret society Acéphale famously had a surfeit of volunteers for a ritualistic death, but failed to secure anyone willing to murder the victim. Bushnell solved this dilemma by immolating himself. But while Bataille was a perverse reader of Nietzsche, conflating ego-annihilation with the striving of the ubermensch to overcome himself, Bushnell was, in his way, a true disciple of Bataille.

Some on the Right drew parallels between Bushnell’s suicide and the famous seppuku of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. But Bushnell’s pitiable act is unlikely to hold our attention span for as long. In the end, he was a consumer of myths, as opposed to an actor who made them, and his death describes nothing so eloquently as the ugly and parasitic moral system that conscripted him. 

Catherine Sulpizio is a writer and the co-host of The Temple of Friendship podcast. She can be followed @jardinsecret888.

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