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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Theatre of Cruelty—And Its Double: From Aaron Bushnell to Biden's Gaza Airdrop

The real purpose of this spectacle was to deliver votes for the president, not meals for the starving.

Mourners at a vigil for Aaron Bushnell in Washington, DC, February 26 -- image via the Party for Socialism and Liberation on X


By Richard Eskow, Common Dreams


The head of Save the Children described the Biden Administration’s recent airdrop of food into Gaza airdrop as “theater.” That it is. So is the Vice President’s sudden “demand” for a six-week ceasefire. For that matter, so is the ceasefire itself — if it happens. It’s likely to be characterized by ongoing immiseration and slow death, to be followed by the faster forms of killing.


It’s an American theater of cruelty whose real purpose is to deliver votes for the president, not meals for the starving. It will end as it began: in fire. The question is, what kind of fire and for whom?


Breadcrumbs


The American airdrop consisted of 38,000 “MRE’s,” or “Meals Ready to Eat,” those unwholesome feed bags the US military buys by the millions to feed its underpaid and undervalued soldiers. To call this gesture a publicity stunt is unfair to publicity stunts, which are hollow but rarely lethal. It’s part of a killing strategy of deflection and deception.


More than 2,100,000 people are starving in Gaza; the children are already dying. If divided evenly, every person in Gaza would receive precisely 1.8 percent of each bag pictured above – that is, if they got any of it, which is unlikely amidst all the US-backed chaos. Hunger can’t be cured homeopathically, with microscopic doses.


The average weight of an MRE is 22 ounces. (I looked it up.) That means this airdrop provided roughly one-third of an ounce of food for every man, woman, and child. That’s like a bird hunter scattering breadcrumbs for pigeons before he starts killing them again.


At the going price for MREs (I looked that up, too), the retail cost of the food dropped comes to $617,405. That’s 29 cents for every starving person in Gaza (which is pretty much all of them.) And the military probably got a discount.


Perhaps the cost should be billed to the Biden campaign. Its real purpose is to offset the growing backlash against the administration’s support for mass slaughter, which was quantified in the Michigan primary’s surge of anti-Biden “uncommitted” votes. The president has seemed publicly insensate to the deaths of children, but even his dimming organs of perception can smell unfriendly votes. And whatever he doesn’t catch, his advisors presumably will.


Meanwhile, the president and his party continue to push a bill that would provide $14 billion in military aid to Israel. That’s more than twenty-two thousand times as much as the US spent on this food drop. Roughly $10 billion of that would consist of weapons for the IDF, including “advanced weapons systems” like the ones that are currently destroying apartment buildings, schools, and hospitals.


That cost should be billed to the American conscience.


The Airdrop Show


From the Washington Post: “Critics say airdrops are expensive and ineffective, and argue diplomatic efforts should be focused on opening Gaza’s border crossing to allow aid convoys access.” But that would require confronting Israel, which the Biden Administration has yet to do in any meaningful way.


The United States could send food aid on ships to the Gaza shore with troops through the Rafah Crossing. It could confront Israel with a simple choice: fire on our military, or accept that the policy of mass starvation has come to an end. The fact that it doesn’t means that the dying will continue.


The same inaction gives the lie to Kamala Harris’ belated discovery that “people in Gaza are starving” and her lofty call for “an immediate ceasefire” – which sounds good, except that the administration is absolving Israel of all responsibility for the deaths and for the lack of a ceasefire.


The latest evidence for that was a press briefing in which two unnamed “senior administration officials” spoke on conditions of anonymity (conditions which the media should not have accepted, according to the professional standards of journalism.)


“Can you say broadly whether you feel that Israel is cooperating enough on getting aid into Gaza?” they were asked. “Do you feel that having done this, having had to do this airdrop today, is a statement at all on their cooperation?”


“The challenge is from various sources.” Replied “Senior Administration Official,” but “it is not a reflection on Israel or Israeli practices. It's a reflection on need. The need is there.”


Got that? Israel had nothing to do with it. “The need” just appeared and is now simply “there.”

Palestine is the land of biblical miracles, but that’s a new one.


Acts of Submission


Robert Ford, a much-decorated career diplomat and former ambassador to Syria, tweeted:


“I've seen Israel humiliate previous US administrations, but … forcing USA to do airdrops of aid to Gaza as if USA is no better than Egypt & Jordan is Israel's worst humiliation of USA i've ever seen.”

Even now, Biden responds to this humiliation with more acts of submission and collaboration. His unnamed officials blamed the ongoing violence solely on one party, saying it continues


“because a terrorist group holding hostages, including Americans, is continuing to fight and attack. They could stop this -- Hamas could -- tonight, instantly, and allow the free movement of assistance, medicine, care to go to the civilians of Gaza with whom, under whom, in whose homes they have embedded themselves for these past 17 years.”

This is Netanyahu’s rhetoric. But even if all these claims are true (they’re highly disputable), none justify the ongoing, criminal violence being waged on a civilian population.


The anonymous officials also proclaimed that Hamas is holding up a ceasefire agreement but insisted that Israel has “more or less” agreed to it. Hamas showed up the following day for a negotiation session; Israel did not. That was no surprise. Anyone who has done any deals at all knows that people either agree or they don’t. “More or less” is the language of the huckster, not the diplomat.


No wonder those officials remained anonymous. Perhaps they, unlike their boss, retain a vestigial sense of shame.


But I doubt it.


Starving the Victims


Neither the president nor his newly high-minded VP have renounced their own Senate bill, which provides billions to the Israeli war machine while ending all support for UNRWA — the most vital aid agency in Gaza — and pledging no minimum amount of aid in return.


Even the European Union, whose actions have largely been shameful on this issue, has reversed itself on UNRWA. Its top diplomat, Josep Borrell, has acknowledged that UNRWA is an “irreplaceable actor.”


The EU is still holding back some funds, regrettably, but it has released $54 millionand has promised additional funding after certain conditions are met. Biden and his party have yet to change their position, even as more children die of starvation.


The Importance of Burning


Which brings us to an update on the sacrifice of airman Aaron Bushnell, who immolated himself outside the Israeli Embassy while shouting “Free Palestine!” A law enforcement officer shouted, “I don't need guns, I need fire extinguishers.”


That phrase should become the guiding principle of American foreign policy.


I’ve been reluctant to write about Bushnell’s act. Not because I don’t admire it — I do — but because those of us who have struggled with depression have an intimate relationship with suicide. Perhaps too intimate to be objective.


But this wasn’t suicide. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote to Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965. In his letter, he explains the actions of the monks who immolated themselves during the Vietnam War. One sentence struck me then, just as it strikes me now:


“The importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn.”

He continued:


“To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with the utmost of courage, frankness, determination and sincerity.”

My fear – and, frankly, my expectation – was that Bushnell’s sacrifice would be ignored. Instead, it has resonated. His memory has been kept alive in the discourse. Maybe, just maybe, something is awakening in the American conscience.


The Theater of Cruelty and Its Double


The French actor and playwright Antonin Artaud developed the concept of a “theater of cruelty” as a way to awaken audiences with “the fiery magnetism of its images,” until it becomes “a spiritual therapeutics whose touch can never be forgotten.”


One of Artaud’s dramas was intended to reflect “the Fall of Jerusalem, according to the Bible and history; with the blood-red color that trickles from it and the people's feeling of abandon and panic visible even in the light.”


History repeats itself, as the indigenous people of the region once again feel a sense of abandon and panic that is almost “visible in the light.”


Artaud was also fascinated by the story of Rabbi Shimon, a pioneer in the same mystical tradition that must have guided my great-grandfather as a rabbinical judge in 19th-century Russia-Ukraine.


The story of Shimon’s death as it has been sent down goes like this, as summarized in a Jewish Kabbalist website:


“On that day fire surrounded the house of Rabbi Shimon ... fire from the heavens descended and surrounded Rabbi Shimon. It gave him protection and opened a pure path for his soul ascending the upper worlds.”

Artaud wrote that Shimon’s mystical story “has the ever-present violence and force of a conflagration.” The story of the rabbi “who burns like fire,” he wrote, “is as immediate as fire itself.”


The fiery magnetism of Aaron Bushnell’s sacrifice has touched the world. The theater of cruelty, which was not designed to be cruel, has found its mirror image in love and sacrifice. I’m no theologian, but who knows? Maybe the fire that took Aaron’s life will provide protection and a pure path – for him, and those for whom he died.


But it’s not enough to hope. Action is needed now, before it’s too late, because fire comes in many forms. It can burn slowly, giving light and warmth. Or it can arise suddenly, unexpectedly, assuming the shape of inescapable justice as it moves among us.


Richard (RJ) Eskow is a freelance writer. Much of his work can be found on eskow.substack.com. His weekly program, The Zero Hour, can be found on cable television, radio, Spotify, and podcast media. He is a senior advisor with Social Security Works.


This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

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