Last weekend, a lone twin-engine Bombardier Q400 got taxied out onto a runway of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and from the cab of the service tractor emerged a 29-year-old of average build and ambition. Without arising suspicion, he climbed aboard the empty puddle-jumper and roared off down the runway, about an hour away from a very deliberate and intentionally meaningless death.
Rich Russell was no ideological terrorist, no political extremist, and no disenfranchised incel. In fact, the guy was married—happily, by all appearances—and, like the rest of the saner portions of white America, generally kept his head down with regard to his political opinions. He had an active and normal online presence, with self-shot videos of his days at work and smiling selfies with friends and family. According to the modern order, this was a man neither capable nor interested in doing something rash; his material needs were all met, his psychological appearance seemed stable, his libido was kept in check, and his spiritual interests, well, those seemed fine enough as well.
And yet, minutes after take-off and pursued by F-15s, Rich pulled off a barrel roll in that commercial airliner, practically skimming the quiet waters off the coast of Seattle, only to soar up again into the orange-bleached sunset of the diming weekend. “I kinda thought that would be it,” he told air traffic control, without a hint of malice or enmity in his voice. There was only resignation, and probably remorse.
Even before the nosecone shattered through the lines of trees and the plane was rent asunder, Rich’s actions had already sparked the interest of the internet. By the time the burning wreckage was smoldering on the side of Ketron Island, the man had already been canonized as another saint whose life was lost in the memetic struggle against Modernity itself. See You, Space Cowboy; You’re Gonna Carry That Weight: images of the stolen vehicle profiled against the sunset accompanied tribute videos and captions normally reserved for the chaotic events of assassinations and mass shootings. And yet where irony laced the content of the latter, an ounce of sincerity weighed the eulogies for Rich. Maybe because for the people who made and consumed the content, Rich was clearly one of their own. The voice over that radio carried the same unmistakable self-awareness that the disgruntled, resigned anons of the millennial generation hear every day from their own throats.
“Just a broken guy, got a few screws loose I guess. Never really knew it until know.” It’s a dialogue with a bystander that resonates with a lot more young men in this country than anyone would care to admit. And this guy wasn’t even that young; he was staring thirty in the face.
He’s been hailed by some as a hero against the soulless modern machine of the neoliberal, postindustrial West. By others, his flight deserves scorn and ridicule, either for having exposed others to danger, or for having committed the grave sin of suicide and having left behind a wife and family. While it’s not difficult to condemn the suicide of a man pushed past his limit, there remains still the imprint of unspoken despair which most, I think, find a resonance within their hearts.
After the years of gradual and deliberate secularization, the substitution of hierarchy for egoism, virtue for convenience, value for usury, ethnicity for hypocrisy, and vocation for employment, the hollow shell of a body once called a nation merely seems capable of producing men at age of fatherhood who, when pushed to their absolute limits, seek only destruction. The Rich Russell immortalized in this single act is not a paragon of virtue. He’s living out another portrait of desperation: a real life Willy Lowman more real and relevant than the stale product of post-war Jewish-Americanism most of us had to study in school.
Yet the man’s virtue doesn’t really matter here. His humility behind the flight stick, and that drunken nonchalance over the radio encapsulate the essence of the modern predicament. It’s not because of what he did, specifically, that his suicide has transformed into a cultural artifact, but how. He was not ideologically motivated. He had no chips on his shoulder, no wrath directed at or against anyone. He did not intend to send a message—indeed, he had no message to send. His behavior remained as simple as his actions: he stole a plane for a joyride and quite intentionally killed himself. It is the purest manifestation of a shitpost written upon the modern world.
This is the spectacle that has captured attention of the internet: the spectacle of a flattened action. There is no truth to be found beyond the very appearances of the event. Its substance is defined by the facts made self-evident in their observance. Why did he steal the plane? Why did he do a barrel roll? Why did he kill himself? Quite simply, just because. He didn’t even think that he could pull it off, and after he attempted it, he had no interest in returning. That sense of investment, ultimately, is what has attracted the attention of his contemporaries. It’s what has led to their calling him a hero, even. But in typical modern fashion, the simple act has meant nothing. Nothing heroic can come from an act that has no meaningful end. When asked, what are you fighting for, the heroic man hasn’t the choice to say I don’t know, much less, sorry for the inconvenience.
What I identify here is acedia, that loathsome sin of sloth. It has masked itself with humility, changing that word from a term implying utter investment and penance into a word that is little more than a synonym for self-disparagement and self-deprecation. You can hear that in Rich’s last words, and you can see it written in the tribute videos. We are becoming more aware of acedia, but aware only in a sublime, confused sense. Most cannot identify it because it has become cloaked with the simplicity of laziness and physical sloth.
But acedia cannot be conquered by stealing a plane, or joyriding, or going against the grain. Modernity has already tried to give us all the pleasantries imaginable in order for us to forget that creeping acedia at the borders of our souls, but it reappears every generation under new guises: dread, existential angst, despair. The more it has been ignored, the more poisonous it has grown. Poor Rich has been, apparently, another victim, and as sympathetic as his awareness to it is, that sympathy does not address the problem itself.
Rest in peace.