Filthy, Rotten System Refusers: Aaron, Rachel and Silas

“Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”

– Dorothy Day

Throughout history there has always been a small number of individuals, a group of people united through time, unable to accept injustice—simply unable, as if they have a violent allergic reaction when presented with horrors being visited upon others. Most of us have varying degrees of empathy, but realistically only feel the pain fully when it is dealt with in a personal manner. These almost ethereal individuals exemplify the best of humanity and though few are in this select group, they have the ability to awaken decency as it slumbers in the hearts of others with less pristine convictions. To consider the trajectory of history without these conscientious objectors is unthinkable; no group of humans is more important to the future (if there is to be one) than those who reject and refuse to accept the dehumanization of others.

We have all recently learned of the death of Aaron Bushnell, the young man who set himself on fire on February 25th in front of the Israeli Embassy, declaring “Free Palestine” over and over with his literal dying breaths. This young man, wracked in pain, stood unimaginably tall as he proclaimed his support. For those not terminally online, he live-streamed the entire event, notifying outlets in advance to ensure his sacrifice would not be ignored. It’s certain that Aaron was aware of the attempt last December of a woman in Atlanta to do the same type of protest. Her name isn’t even public and she also set herself on fire, that time in front of the Israeli Consulate. The details of that protest were shut down rapidly and Aaron decided to go forward in a manner not possible to ignore.

I would never presume to question Aaron’s sacrifice; there is no doubt he has destroyed much of the ongoing narrative that support for Israel at this point is acceptable in a decent world. He caught the attention of many who were sleeping. He will absolutely be remembered as a voice of moral clarity—his action has done so much to let the Palestinians know that America is not a united edifice wanting their annihilation. This is a problem with our leaders. His sacrifice transcends ethnic, racial, and governmental imaginary boundaries. The fact that we are all one and what is done to others is done to all is the overriding message. Not to mention his Gen Z awareness that live-streaming, wearing his active duty uniform, and voicing clarity directly to the masses without giving the ability of mass media to filter it out is evidence of his rational choices and the fact that he simply felt his sacrifice was worth it. I do hope that any others feeling a similar pull would, of course, not do the same. This was Aaron’s protest and soul in action. In some way it seems it would take away from his sacrifice if similar events take place, not to mention that we need individuals of empathy to stay here with us to fight the landslide of injustice. But again, I have nothing but admiration and respect for the young man who felt so deeply about the ongoing genocide that he used this tradition of forcing his ideals to be noticed by self-immolation.

Evidence indicates that Aaron was always truly a benevolent soul, called the “kindest, gentlest, silliest kid” by a friend. He used his spare time to help local populations who had no shelter, being involved in mutual aid groups in his stationed areas. He was rational enough to make a will (with resources allotted to Palestinian aid) and even made arrangements for the continued care of his cat. As an aside, another commonality with the Palestinians—how many videos have we seen of kids showing their love of animals and sharing sparse food to keep loved cats alive, moving their pets with them from bombed site to bombed site? But anyway, Aaron’s planning indicates rational choice and weighing out that the message was more important than his own life, at least to him.

It does break my heart that we have lost Aaron Bushnell. As a reminder and to give proper respect I want to repeat– Aaron said “I’m about to engage in an extreme act of protest, but compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers, it’s not extreme at all. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal.” But like the quote from Dorothy Day, Aaron did not accept this filthy, rotten system.

Attempts will be made to discredit this noble man, and I hope the proper amount of suspicion will be cast upon those who speak ill of him. They certainly have a track record of deceit. One notable slur showing up has been the dropping of the “A word”. Not Aaron, but Anarchist. Of course, he had anarchist beliefs, as in the aversion and disgust of unearned hierarchical power, but the mainstream media knows that most Americans do not understand what the word means and use it as a pejorative. Another attempt ongoing is to paint him as a religious extremist, which is hilarious in today’s America, the powers that be want religious extremism, but only the kind that allows for anger, violence and erosion of women’s autonomy. Aaron was brought up in a Cape Cod group called the Community of Jesus. New York Magazine reports that an individual aware of the group said “Young people in the community of Jesus often join the military, moving from one high-control group to another high-control group” This was presented as almost a stand-alone indictment that pointed to him being misguided, but to me this indicates that even in the midst of multiple systems of hierarchy and oppression, that wasn’t enough to ultimately contain this young man’s moral clarity.

Numerous comparisons are being made between Aaron Bushnell’s sacrifice and that of Rachel Corrie. For those unaware of her, or simply not sure what she exactly did—back in 2005 she was killed in Rafah (yes, that spot where the Israelis have currently kettled 1.5 million Gazans). Rachel Corrie died from asphyxia when a bulldozer ran over her as she was standing and protesting in an attempt to protect Palestinian homes being knocked over in the push for illegal settlements. They saw her and proceeded to run her over. I think of Rachel as a kindred spirit to Aaron not just because of their chosen cause, but because of the ongoing thread of compassion in their lives. Why was she there trying to protect the multi-generational homes of the Palestinians? I think this letter from the precocious Rachel as a child discussing world starvation says more than anything about her character: “I’m here for other children. I’m here because I care. We have got to understand that these deaths are preventable. We have got to understand that people in third world countries think and care and smile and cry just like us.”

To understand who Rachel was up against, after her murder, there were photos shared online of pancake feeds in response to her death (as in– she was flattened like a pancake), understandably many were disgusted by this and made comments against such depravity. The rabbi and director of Heritage House Settlement (the settler project who had been involved in sharing the pancake photos) noted online that a Zionist benefactor would start pledging $5 for every comment in support of Corrie and added “Anti-Israeli activists are all in a tizzy about these pictures! Make them even funnier!” Even today, right-wing gun fetish sites have mentions of annual pancake feeds and trips to IHOP in response to her death (I won’t even mention the site names but if you want to get sick you can find them easily). Nothing seems to bring out the monster in certain types than being presented with a person of moral courage—I’m sure it’s a response to keep from actually feeling anything and to not have one’s autocratic worldviews challenged. But Rachel was a true light in the world; those individuals mocking her death give those on the sidelines a glimpse of the depravity being fought and the continued dehumanization of others.

But I’m speaking about the good and the moral throughout time, not those who mock such deaths, To paraphrase Mr. Rogers, I’m talking about “helpers” of history.

A man I simply want to mention within the same breath as the above is a man named Silas Soule (pronounced fittingly, “soul”). I look for the strands in history that connect us, and this man is from a lineage of decency, the likes of which continued on in the actions of Rachel Corrie and Aaron Bushnell.

Silas Soule also died young; he was just 26 years of age. He died on the streets of Denver, Colorado in 1865, likely murdered in response to a principled stand he took shortly prior to his death.

Silas was an abolitionist, born in Maine, he moved to Kansas in the late 1850s as part of the Jayhawker free-state movement. Much like Aaron Bushnell, he was described in flattering and fun terms as a youth—he was “full of practical jokes and tall tales”, a loved young man. He entered Kansas during an era of outrageous violence known as “Bleeding Kansas”– a time that pitted slavery and anti-slavery forces against each other in a microcosm of what would come to be in the later American Civil War. Silas was on the right side of history along with his parents, even being involved in organizing and maintaining a stop in the underground railroad. When John Brown was executed in Harper’s Ferry, Soule attempted to free two of Brown’s followers. He simply could not abide injustice.

In later years, Soule headed to the gold fields of Colorado; he signed up for the Union at the time of the Civil War and was made a lieutenant in short order. He found himself at yet another moral crossroads very quickly, however. A secret plan was enacted to exterminate a friendly tribe in the Sand Creek area of Colorado. Colonel John Chivington was the primary villain, even putting military men under house arrest to keep the plot secret. To make it clear that enemies of decency can show up on any side, it’s instructive to know that Chivington was a Union commander and also a Methodist pastor.

When Soule voiced his opposition to the planned slaughter it was made known that they would rather hang Soule than stop the barbaric murder of Black Kettle’s peaceful village. Soule refused orders to fire upon the villagers and stopped his command from doing the same–he was able to document clearly what happened in the massacre; he freely used terms like “low lived cowardly son of a bitch” and said that his command “refused to fire and swore that none but a coward would”. It’s tragic that Soule wasn’t able to outright stop the murder of 230 mostly women, children and elderly—he was able to stop his men from committing carnage of their own and most likely allowed for some to be able to escape. He testified at a military hearing two months later in regard to the atrocity even after being threatened against doing so. The letters he penned in regard to the slaughter are incredibly difficult to read–giving an unsparing immediacy to the vile acts. It was pretty evident he would pay with his life for speaking out at some point. He was yet another brave individual pointing out horrors and moving the needle of public opinion. He didn’t lose his sense of kindness and humor, writing letters to his mother in that era joking about needing to find a rich widow to marry, asking her if she thought Maine would give him a better chance than out west–he makes a lot of jokes in those letters to his mother and often called himself lazy. His silly side makes the serious side even more precious–he is a fully fleshed-out character from the past that we can relate to. He did what he needed to do because it was correct, whether it was helping with the underground railroad and pushing for emancipation or refusing to take part in our nation’s genocide. Sadly, Chivington did not have the immediate consequences he deserved; he did live a long, fail-ridden life. He faced disgrace after the hearings, had to drop all political aspirations, and also had to move to Nebraska. I guess that’s just the rules. If you look at a map of Colorado near the Sand Creek Massacre site though, I think you should look at the name of the nearby town. Yes, Chivington, Colorado is still a place. And Soule was murdered on the streets of Denver, most likely as retribution for his brave stance. Even after all these years, a lot of murderous baggage is still lying around.

I want to make clear that by highlighting these three, I am not trying to paint a white moral savior kind of narrative. The individuals (Palestinians, Indigenous American tribal members) have stories of their own–of exponential power and clarity that I hope will continue to be fully explored and given the volumes of attention deserved. I simply write about these three because I am heartened by those who have no need to involve themselves in the problems of others and the outright shame of colonialism is a stain on all of us of European extraction—knowing there are individuals, even in such settings of consensus cruelty and the context of their own times are able to rise above it—well, it gives me hope.

Because “there is one common struggle against those who have appropriated the earth, the money, and the machines.” Voltairine de Cleyre.

These three deserve to never be forgotten.

Kathleen Wallace writes out of the US Midwest. Her writing is collected on her Substack page.