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Do we even care?

Aaron Bushnell's startling sacrifice is a wake up call for all of us

By Brian J. Karem


When did our species become self-aware and what was the first abstract thought by a human being?

Was it a thought of love as a mother held her baby? Was it someone standing on an African plain at night and staring up the sky wondering “Who am I? Why am I here?

Perhaps it was the mother with a child who wondered why her mate was standing out in the middle of the night staring at the stars while they starved. “How did I get stuck with this guy?” could be the first abstract thoughts of humanity.

I am haunted by these considerations as I examine humanity in its current state of disarray.

As I write, there are major wars ongoing in Ukraine, Gaza and there are now or have been in the last few years conflicts in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, Libya, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Colombia, and Mali.

In the United States we average a mass shooting almost every day.

Meanwhile, some of us are worried about drag queen shows.

Behind all of these struggles lies the inevitable question: “Why are we here?” Or, maybe, “How did we get stuck with these guys?”

To some it is all about money and power. That denotes a very childlike understanding of our existence, but it dominates most cultures. The power to control one’s life is only possible, so the failed logic goes, if you can control everyone else’s life. Substantial money makes that potential more realistic. Such thoughts remain the core of Thomas Hobbes statement that life is nasty, brutish and short. He believed we are all basically selfish, driven by fear of death and the hope of personal gain.

Such a mindset excludes working together to achieve goals, because working together – true team work – is antithetical to total control. To be truly human is to engage in self-sacrifice for the greater good – whatever that may be. The closest I’ve ever come to seeing or participating in that activity is on a battlefield or in a football huddle.

That’s not even universally accepted either. Some people believe that those who’ve sacrificed for others are “losers” or somehow lack the competitive spark to make a difference in the world. For the most part the greatest team-activity on this planet is found in the community of a family, and/or close friends at best. That’s not universal either, as there are plenty of examples of families not getting along. In fact our history is replete with such activity and remains the basis for many wars and continuing strife among the family of humans.

And so, again, when did we become self-aware and why do so many of us seem to be unaware of the world in which we live today – after the first humans took to abstract thought so many thousands of years ago? Why have we not advanced beyond the tribal stage we embraced for survival at the end of the last ice age even though we know that a few stray words and the pressing of a few buttons is all that separates us from megatons of explosives, nuclear winter and our apocalypse? Remember the Bhagavad Gita (or Robert Oppenheimer) “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

The power we seek to control does not exist outside of being able to trigger an Apocalypse. Sure, Frank Herbert said the ultimate control of a thing resides in the ability to destroy a thing. But, actually control is an illusion. No one is immortal; hence all we can exert an influence over is our inevitable death. No one can withstand the ravages of time or the consequences of our actions no matter what some of us may believe or the actions we take out of fear, loneliness and ignorance.

If our reality is merely a computer game on someone’s laptop, it appears we need a reboot. We neither recognize nor understand self-sacrifice when we see it, and if we do, it is seldom appreciated.

Despots, kings and authoritarians still take the limelight long after our revolution denounced them and our Constitution made them politically unpopular.

Which is all preamble to discuss the actions of 25-year-old U.S Air Force engineer Aaron

Aaron Bushnell

Bushnell. He walked up to the Israeli Embassy in Washington D.C. Monday, turned on the video camera in his cellphone, told the world “I will no longer be complicit in genocide,” before placing the phone in a convenient location that could capture his actions. “I am about to engage in an extreme act of protest,” he said. Then he doused himself with a flammable liquid from what looked like a thermos, lit himself on fire, shouted repeatedly “Free Palestine!” before collapsing less than a minute later as security surrounded him (one pointed a hand gun at him as he was prone on his back) and sprayed him with a fire extinguisher.

He died hours later.

We know what his last words were. As his eyes melted, his face burned and the camouflage gear he wore fell in flames from his body, he breathed in the fire consuming him, shouted out “Free Palestine” and then succumbed.

But what were his last thoughts? What thoughts brought him to this precipice?

His last message on Facebook, a couple of hours before his self-immolation said,

“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,” he wrote.

Self-immolation is not unique among protesters. Bushnell isn’t even the first to do it to protest the Israel-Hamas war. Previously the most famous incident was Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc who took his own life in Saigon, June 11, 1963 protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.

“It's an act of despair,” Ralph Young, a history professor at Temple University told Time Magazine. “You feel that there's nothing that you can do, or that people are willing to do, so this is the ultimate sacrifice—yourself.”

In our world, that doesn’t fit. It is almost beyond our comprehension. To take your own life for a cause? Where’s the money in that? Our politicians, most world leaders and a few golf players would never sacrifice themselves for someone else. Most politicians will go with the flow to retain control. Most voters have ceded their voice to the grifters who use them as marks. The rugged individuality most of us claim to have or desire simply doesn’t exist. We’ve become unwitting team players in support of those who would steal from us to enrich their own lives. And, those who wish for a better family of humanity show their individualism with an act of self-sacrifice to make the world a better place for the rest of us.

The act of despair viewed another way speaks to a way of thinking that most of us cannot grasp – the only thing we can control is ourselves, and if we cannot work together, then humanity itself is involved in a long, drawn out act of self-immolation. There's the mental health issue no one wants to talk about.

You see, we’re all on the same team whether we believe it or not. I wonder if that was among the first abstract thoughts in history.

Take a close look at Aaron Bushnell.

He is us.


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