“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
While the final words of John Donne’s seventeenth-century poem are more well-known than the first, the complete quote captures my response to news of the suicide death of Simone Burns, the Irish anti-Israel activist who was caught on video in 2018 screaming racial taunts at the crew of an Air India flight that refused to serve her more alcohol.
Although I made a brief comment about the incident in this piece about BDSers behaving badly, that was the extent of the time-of-day dedicated to the story (although I will admit she popped into my head whenever I contemplated what boycotters would sound like if they generally let their masks slip).
Apparently Burns was arrested after her tirade and sentenced to six months in prison. During her time behind bars, the video of her crazy behavior went viral, turning her into a punchline for strangers, an embarrassment to allies, and a stand-in for everything wrong with those who pretend their anti-Israel animus is actually a crusade for human rights.
Since the soul of other living beings is ultimately inaccessible to outsiders, there is no telling if Burns took her life out of guilt over her misbehavior, embarrassment at having her bigotry communicated across the planet, abandonment of former friends and allies, hate-Tweets from ideological enemies, pain from long-term skin cancer treatments, depression, alcoholism or (most likely) some combination of the above.
In retrospect, what came off originally as the BDS mindset taken to its logical extreme now seems like the ravings of a staggeringly lost soul, someone who – like all of us – desperately wanted her life to mean something. The fact that she found that meaning in the objectification and negation of a people, then found a community ready to celebrate her “bravery” in doing so, are two early steps that likely led to her final fate.
Burns’ fervency in promoting the anti-Israel cause can be seen in the energy she devoted to it professionally, as well as her demands that complete strangers on an airplane give her the respect she clearly felt she deserved. Yes, alcohol (and likely other factors) contributed to her Air India breakdown which ultimately led to her demise, but I wonder if all of this tragedy could have been avoided had she not fallen into a community built on turning an entire people (Israelis – although just the Jewish ones) into the kind of one-dimensional caricatures that Burns saw herself become on social media.
As far as I can tell, Burns became a non-person among “friends” after that Air India video became a global phenomenon, although it sounds like there has been some effort to blame critics (especially the more irrational and threatening among them) for tormenting her into the grave.
Personally, this rational critic feels more sadness and regret than contempt (much less joy) over the news that a political opponent chose to end her life. Perhaps this is a sign of weakness, although the disastrous track record of those who celebrate the demise of opponents (as well as recruit the mentally disturbed to their cause) gives practical value to the moral choice of not treating anyone (even someone who hates you) as a thing.