Diagnosing Resistance

AARON BUSHNELL WAS a twenty-five-year-old active Air Force member, employed as a cybersecurity expert. After growing up in a conservative religious sect on Cape Cod, he joined the US military a few years after Donald Trump was elected. Soon after George Floyd was murdered, Bushnell had a political awakening, became critical of the military, and started participating in mutual-aid projects. An autodidact who eventually identified as an anarchist, Bushnell moved from San Antonio to Ohio, where he prepared to transition out of the military. You likely know how his story ended: on Sunday, February 25, 2024, he died by self-immolation outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC, protesting the ongoing genocide in Gaza. He wore his military uniform. As the poet Wendy Trevino recently wrote: “But that / He be active duty was important. / It was important for the uniform. / It was important to not put it off.” Bushnell carefully plotted how his self-immolation would be broadcast and disseminated. He set up a Twitch live stream and sent the link to leftist organizations, planning for the video’s safekeeping. The story was broken by reporter Talia Jane, who circulated a blurred live stream.

After he left this life, almost five months into a genocide, we were asked to consider whether Aaron Bushnell was the sanest American. Many considered him the opposite, his fatal act immediately and resoundingly framed as beyond reason. By that evening, there was a rush to disavow his protest. The arguments were pat: being well means wanting to live and so wanting to die is insane. Bushnell gave his life because he wanted to change this reality. He was living in that change, naming it from within the fire, for as long as he could. He chanted the change for which he was prepared to die: “Free Palestine.”

Bushnell did not want the image of his death separate from the image of ongoing death in Gaza. But his self-immolation was taken up as an act about an individual, not an individual act performed with others in mind. We might say none of this matters because Bushnell’s protest was effective—in getting people to scream, which must be what he, in part, wanted: to make people feel that the destruction of other bodies and other places can, should, show up in our own.

Rather than screaming about Gaza, many screamed about a generic, medical vision of mental health as if this were somehow still a generic case. Notices about mental ill health and suicidality were appended to articles about Bushnell, referring readers to suicide hotlines (that also routinely call the police on those suffering). Never mind that he didn’t die by “suicide.” Never mind that no such notice is appended to any article that pretends to cover the thirty thousand dead Palestinians and a genocide by starvation, by bomb, by land invasion. Never mind that almost no therapeutic resources are now available in Palestine, though psychiatrists and psychotherapists still doggedly care for their patients after five months, after seventy-five years.

By collapsing suicide and self-immolation via what they share (self-killing), psychologists and commentators rerouted Bushnell’s message (freedom) to deprive it of one. Political self-sacrifice, particularly self-immolation, may be extreme—and Bushnell said it was—but it has, for that very reason, been a tactic recognized for centuries, handed down in both protest movements and religious ones​. Bushnell should be remembered as part of this diverse lineage. Like him, those who came before were stripped of their militancy and their minds, rendered flat zealots. There are many who, for the collective, die alone: other self-immolators, including veterans who brought the tools of war home, and activists who persist through hunger or medicine strikes. Self-immolation, despite having a 50 percent chance of death in someone of Bushnell’s age, is the bomb that tries to hurt no one and nothing else. Suicide is often framed as the most selfish act (though we might dispute and despair of this framing). Political self-sacrifice—however upsetting—might be the most generous one. In making the deliberate category error of calling ​Bushnell’s self-immolation a suicide, commentators​ commandeered his agency, attributing his death to an affliction because it was easier to think of him as ill than to consider the message of his reasoned death.

As he prepared to die, Bushnell said, “This was what our ruling class has decided will be normal.” Using the word “normal,” Bushnell made a profound point about how power works. He seemed to know that his response to the pain of this world would be cast as abnormal while the genocide was (and is) considered business as usual. In trying to flip that script, Bushnell points us to how “normal” is enforced by the psy-fields: notions of medical pathology have always corralled us, literally counseled us, to accept what cannot be accepted. Pathologizing protest allows one to say, “Never mind,” and that’s what was said of Bushnell. While his ashes were still on the sidewalk in front of the embassy, the meaning of his death was already changing. He dedicated his death outward but a number of those who heard his message wanted to put it back inside him, where they presumed there was no political mind, only an emotional one.

Since anti-fascist philosopher Georges Canguilhem at least, we have understood that what is pathological can only be stated in terms of what is made to be normal. Psychiatry has often been called in to miscast political acts—let alone self-sacrifice—as ill. And this is only if the person in question is granted a psyche; militants often are black boxed under the category of “terrorist.” Even Bushnell, white and wearing his fatigues, had a gun drawn on him as he died.

Resistance, especially militant protest, has long been medically pathologized. That work is carried out by categorizing whole groups as ill and marking individuals within those groups as extreme cases of same. This should be self-evident, but it is so totalizing as to be naturalized. Palestinian militants are called psychotics or terrorists, and anti-Zionist Jews are said not just to be outside the faith but also mad, ill, and self-hating. The mainstream psy-fields, endowed with great power to determine inner and outer realities and the relationship between the two, have long been the State’s handmaidens, ready to come up with new taxonomies that pathologize protesters and then hold them—containing them in the popular imagination as well as the asylum or prison. Or else they have already pathologized whole groups of people, portraying any protest they instigate as a symptom of disease. (There is, of course, a long-standing set of countertraditions, both of radical groups that have sought to recuperate pathology and of clinicians who work against typical notions of pathology.)

When Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, the initial cause of death was “excited delirium syndrome.” Although the diagnosis received some press during the trial, it was only two years after Floyd’s murder, nearly to the day, that Physicians for Human Rights named it what it is: tactical pseudoscience. Despite not being listed in the DSM-V, the diagnosis has been functioning as a plausible cover for nearly forty years, frequently adduced by police and their lawyers to legitimate police brutality, especially ex post facto and after deaths in custody or during an attempted arrest. What was pathologized in Floyd? His running, his resistance, his struggle to stay alive in the face of a cop who wanted him dead with the force of history and its systems of power behind him. After he was murdered, a weaponized diagnosis was close at hand.

Excited delirium has its origins in forensic pathology—the form of psychiatry that, in part, is used to backform narrative evidence for crimes. First formulated by Dr. Charles Wetli as a description of the state of mind resulting from cocaine overdose, it was soon applied to crack users at the height of the drug wars, becoming deeply racialized, much like the drug use that ostensibly brought it on. Pathology is always invested in containment, and behind this contemporary diagnosis stands a history that extends as far back as the eve of the Civil War. We can trace excited delirium’s antecedents to 1851, in Dr. Samuel Cartwright’s address to the Louisiana Medical Association, where he coined “drapetomania,” “an uncontrollable and insane impulsion to wander” he associated with those running from slavery. Cartwright contended that there was no such thing as a formerly enslaved person—only one who was unreasonable enough to flee the institution; for Cartwright, Black freedom was mental illness. The nineteenth-century diagnosis was used to justify the practice of fugitive-slave patrols, out of which modern-day police forces sprang. The diagnosis has shifted guises, but the symptom pathologized has not.

We have seen diagnoses emerge and be attached to protest with almost every great social movement of the twentieth century. The historian Jonathan Metzl tells us how, between Cartwright and Wetli, psychiatry separated autism from schizophrenia, making the former the domain of white children and took the historic demographics of the latter (white women, mostly middle-class) and shunted them into other diagnoses. Freed up, and now with no obvious demographic etiology, schizophrenia became the diagnosis for Black protesters at the core of the civil rights movements, especially militants. To resist was to be medically pathological, unable to contact reality. We know, instead, that Black militants were trying to remake it. We see how this lives on in bunk diagnoses like excited delirium today, and we can see it in how Bushnell was immediately understood to be unwell.

Protest gets pathologized when justice movements produce impermissible disruptions: to traffic, business as usual, or—most vehemently—to thought. We must protect Aaron Bushnell from this playbook so that the meaning of his death is not taken from him—or from us. We are likely to fail in this task, but it is urgent. Huey P. Newton once defined the difference between a revolutionary suicide and a reactionary one: “Revolutionary suicide does not mean that I and my comrades have a death wish; it means just the opposite. We have such a strong desire to live with hope and human dignity that existence without them is impossible.” Newton helps us resee Bushnell’s death as a hopeful one: hopeful that protest still might serve liberatory ends.

Hannah Zeavin is a historian at the University of California, Berkeley, the author of The Distance Cure: A History of Teletherapy (MIT Press, 2021), and the founding editor of Parapraxis magazine.