Fire and water

There are three stories that I’d like to put in conversation today.

The first happened Sunday, when a member of the U.S. Air Force, 25-year-old Senior Airman Aaron J. Bushnell, set himself on fire in front of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, in a protest against the U.S. government, military, and industrial complicity in the genocide in Gaza. He live-streamed his final act on Twitch, a social media platform popular mostly with young men that’s often used to broadcast video games.

The second happened yesterday: At least 115 Palestinians were killed and some 760 more wounded after Israeli forces shot at civilians who were trying to get to a rare humanitarian aid convoy in Gaza City. The predawn incident came as the official Palestinian death toll from Israel’s war crossed 30,000. It occurred a day after the U.N. World Food Program warned that more than half a million Gazans are at risk of imminent famine, and days after Doctors Without Borders reported that the water crisis has gotten so acute that the average family of six on the strip is now subsisting on a single gallon of water a day.

The third was also from yesterday. President Biden and Donald Trump held competing press conferences in the Rio Grande Valley, sparked by headlines about record numbers of “migrant encounters” on the U.S.-Mexico border and a general anti-immigration moral panic. Biden promised to “temporarily shut down the border between ports of entry” if given congressional authority to do so, and invited Trump to work with him on border legislation. Trump—who has promised to round up as many as 18 million immigrants, herd them into concentration camps, and deport them in his capacity as a dictator—went full xenophobe, declaring falsely that "entire columns of fighting-aged men” from “China, Iran, Yemen, the Congo, Syria and a lot of other nations” were flooding across the border, and describing this completely made up situation as “like a war.”

The link between the first two stories is obvious; the third maybe less so; stay with me for a second, and I think that will become clear too. And, spoiler alert, my ultimate point will be this: Understanding these as three separate stories—an extreme protest by a disaffected American, a tragedy befalling Palestinians, and a disembodied “border crisis” that has nothing to do with either, is missing the forest for the trees.

Let’s start with the Gaza stories. Bushnell’s self-immolation (police say he died from his injuries nine hours later at an as-yet-unidentified hospital) has been spun a lot of different ways by mainstream and pro-Israel sources in the last week: as a story of radicalism, mental illness, and even social contagion of suicide. Less direct attention, though underlying the thinking of it, is what it represents politically: a younger generation that is passionately, furiously, at odds with official U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine, to the point that a 25-year-old airman would do something like this, and be honored for it by many of his cohort.

Trying to stave off that reality, Sen. Tom Cotton—who famously called for the 101st Airborne to crush the George Floyd protests in 2020—is calling for an investigation into how the Air Force enlisted someone who “obviously harbored extreme, anti-American views.” (Stop for a moment and consider the claim that opposing mass slaughter in a foreign country is “extreme” and “anti-American,” and what that says about a sitting U.S. senator.) The Anti-Defamation League has done its best to paint Bushnell as a terrorist—a view that is of a piece with the reaction of one D.C. police officer, who rushed over to the burning, dying man, pointed his gun, and ordered him to “get on the ground.” (Another cop, to his credit, responded: “I don’t need guns, I need fire extinguishers.”)

But contrary to the efforts to posthumously defame him, Bushnell was

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