We need to talk about Gen Z’s Palestine mania

There was nothing laudable about Aaron Bushnell’s tragic suicide.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics USA World

How grim is that viral image of Aaron Bushnell screaming ‘FREE PALESTINE!’ as he goes up in flames? His tone flits from one of political fervour to excruciating pain as the fire he ignited consumes his body. He ends up hollering the slogan at an infernal pitch as his earthly self succumbs to the blaze. It is at once an image of a disturbed individual and a disturbed political culture. Of both one man’s mania and what we might call Palestine mania – an affliction of Generation Z where they experience extremes of emotion upon mere mention of the words ‘Gaza’ or ‘Israel’. It’s an affliction we need to talk about.

Bushnell was in the US Air Force. He was 25 years old. Yesterday he went to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC. He doused himself in some kind of liquid and then set it alight. His immolation was swift and horrific. Just prior to his suicide, he filmed himself saying he would ‘no longer be complicit in genocide’. That is, he was no longer willing to serve in a military machine – America’s – that is backing what many in Bushnell’s generation wrongly view as Israel’s ‘genocide’ in Gaza. Yet rather than simply leave the airforce, he chose to make a spectacle of his own fiery demise in order that he might register his fury with Israel. What a waste of a young life.

There is nothing laudable in what Bushnell did. We should feel sympathy for this troubled young man, of course. No one in full command of his faculties commits such a hellish act of violence upon himself. I wish he had sought help. But let’s be clear: this was a nihilistic, tragic act of self-destruction, not an admirable blow against ‘genocide’. Self-immolation – whether over Vietnam, climate change or Tibet – is never noble, never good. It is the fatalistic cry of individuals who have not so much been moved by global events as made mentally unstable by them. To obliterate the self in response to world crises is to surrender to futility. It is an end of politics, not a furtherance of it.

But we should reserve our harshest critique not for tragic Aaron, but for the army of ‘pro-Palestine’ poseurs who are already canonising him as a righteous rebel against Israel and its slavish backers in the West. Anti-Israel activists have been singing his praises all day. They’re making icon-style images of him. They’re lauding him as ‘unspeakably noble’. Not just noble, but unspeakably so. What is really unspeakable – to use its alternative meaning of ‘inexpressibly bad, inexpressibly horrendous’ – is this cynical marshalling of a suicide to the cause of further demonising the Jewish State. Seriously, there is no weapon so cheap or so blunt that the ‘pro-Palestine’ set won’t wield it against the state they hate above all others. Even a man’s mental illness can be made part of the armoury of the Israelophoes.

That image of a man screaming ‘FREE PALESTINE!’ even as fire envelopes his body points to a broader ailment in our societies. ‘Free Palestine’ really is everywhere – in social-media bios, on banners held aloft by the self-righteous chattering class, even in death. The omnipresence of this slogan is enough to make me wary of it. It feels like a kind of cultural tyranny. Everywhere you look, ‘Free Palestine’. The jealous elevation of this one cause brutally excludes every other troubled or oppressed people from the affections of virtuous Westerners. Darfurians, Uyghurs, Kurds, even the West’s own working classes – be damned, it’s ‘Free Palestine’ or nothing.

The singularity of Palestine in the woke brain is curious, to say the least. To return to tragic Aaron – why did he not feel as much fury over his own military’s horrendous actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya as he did over Israel’s pursuit of the pogromists of Hamas in Gaza? Such is the singularity of Palestine that it appears to blind people even to the crimes of their own colleagues. All that matters is hating Israel and loving Palestine. There is a powerful vicarious streak in Gen Z’s Palestine mania – unable, perhaps unwilling, to confront the crises of their own societies, they take comfort in the fairytale narrative they have fashioned around Israel-Gaza. Where fixing what ails the West is complicated, pontificating over Palestine is easy. It provides an instant glow of righteousness to a generation reluctant to address the legion problems their own nations and communities face.

Palestine mania unnerves me. This is not normal politics. It has nothing in common with the anti-war or anti-imperialist campaigns of old. Witness the swarms of Gen Zers and millennials on social media confessing to feeling bereft or devastated or plunged into turmoil by Gaza. This is luxuriant emotionalism masquerading as radical critique, therapy disguised as politics. Palestine mania represents the subjugation of the complex conflicts of the Middle East to the psychosocial needs of privileged Westerners. There is an ironically neo-colonialist bent to this exploitation of foreign grief for domestic gain. I’m sorry that Aaron Bushnell thought that Israel is so uniquely cruel, so unjust, that he had no choice but to sacrifice himself in opposition to it. He was wrong. The Palestine mania hit him hard. RIP.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: YouTube.

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Topics Politics USA World


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