Aaron Bushnell Refused to Be Silent on the Horrors in Gaza

BYSERAJ ASSI https://jacobin.com/

The horrific death of Aaron Bushnell by self-immolation was a stand against the grinding misery in Gaza inflicted by Israel and backed by Bushnell’s own government.

Aaron Bushnell immolated himself outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC, on February 25, 2024, in protest of Israel’s war on Gaza.

On Sunday, a young American man in military uniform walked toward the gate of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC. Starting a livestream, he introduced himself.

My name is Aaron Bushnell. I am an active-duty member of the US Air Force, and I will no longer be complicit in genocide. 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.

The horrific footage shows the twenty-five-year-old Bushnell as he halts in front of the embassy, puts down his phone, douses himself in a flammable liquid, and sets himself alight.

His last words: “Free Palestine.”

As Bushnell collapsed, police officers who had been watching the tragedy unfold dashed toward the scene. While the embassy security agent kept a gun pointed at Bushnell’s flaming body, an officer with a fire extinguisher was heard screaming at him, “I don’t need guns; I need fire extinguishers!”

Bushnell collapsed while screaming “Free Palestine” through intense and horrifying pain. He succumbed to his injuries and died in a local DC hospital shortly after.

Bushnell was a US serviceman who gave his life to protest the horrors committed in Gaza with his own government’s complicity. He served in the United States Air Force for nearly four years. His LinkedIn profile shows that he graduated from basic training “top of flight and top of class.” His friends and loved ones describe him as “a force of joy in our community.” An online post remembers him as “an amazingly gentle, kind, compassionate person.” (Bushnell’s social media account still displays a Palestinian flag on his profile.)

Bushnell’s death takes place as the Joe Biden administration continues to arm Israel to the hilt, lavishing it with billions of dollars while providing a diplomatic cover for its war crimes in Gaza, vetoing several UN resolutions for a cease-fire. The United States has rewarded Israel’s war crimes with a war crime of its own, as it continues to starve Palestinians by halting funding to UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. This halt in funding is a collective punishment of the Palestinian people for seeking justice at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), while promising not to punish Israel for its potential looming invasion of Rafah even if it targets civilians, and despite mounting fears of genocide and ethnic cleansing. (The United States was among the few countries to defend Israel at the ICJ hearing on Israeli occupation last week.)

As Bushnell burned, the death toll in Gaza passed thirty thousand civilians, nearly half of them children. Two million Palestinians have been displaced. Half of the population is on the brink of starvation, as Israel continues to deprive the besieged Gaza Strip of food, water, and medicine, thus condemning thousands of Palestinians to a slow, agonizing death.

Bushnell was not the first American to set themselves afire to protest the Gaza genocide. Last December, a protester self-immolated outside the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta, Georgia, in what the police described as “likely an extreme act of political protest.” A Palestinian flag was found on the scene as part of the protest.

Self-immolation is an act of radical protest that intends to shock and mobilize people into action while alerting us to the horrors of war. The protest has a deep-rooted tradition in US antiwar activism. In 1970, a young Californian man named George Winne Jr died after he set himself on fire in San Diego, California, to protest the Vietnam War. As he lay dying, he asked his mother to write to President Richard Nixon about the motive for his action. Her letter stated:

Our son George Jr. set himself afire on the UCSD campus on May 10. Before dying, he told us he had picked the most dramatic way he could think of to call people’s attention to the most deplorable condition of the world and of this country.

In early 1991, Gregory Levey, a peace demonstrator and school teacher from Amherst, Massachusetts, immolated himself to protest the first Iraq War. Raymond Moules followed suit three days later in Springfield, Virginia.

The extreme tactic also has international precedent, from the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, who set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963 to protest the US war on Vietnam, to Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid in 2010 and helped spark the Arab Spring.

Lighting oneself on fire is not a tactic that anyone who is of sound frame of mind would choose to employ lightly. It is an action borne of desperation, of the feeling that no other tactics, from writing and calling elected officials to attending protests to engaging in civil disobedience, have any ability to hasten the end of the stream of horrors we have seen in Gaza since October. Bushnell’s action was extreme, but many among us can surely relate to his feelings of hopelessness, rage, and heartbreak engendered by watching ethnic cleansing live on our social media platforms, then witnessing precious few elected officials — including within the Democratic Party — summon the courage to demand an end to such gruesome violence.

Bushnell died so that Gaza may live. He died for a free Palestine, and to remind us that many Americans stand against Israel’s occupation, apartheid, and siege of Gaza, and its decades-long oppression of the Palestinian people. His death should serve as a call for action — an urgent plea to do everything we can to stop the unending atrocities in Gaza carried out with US public money and US public officials’ approval, to ensure that no one ever feels compelled to take their own life in such a grisly protest again.

Shortly before his death, Aaron posted the following message online: “Many of us like to ask ourselves, ‘What would I do if I was alive during slavery? Or the Jim Crow South? Or apartheid? What would I do if my country was committing genocide?’ The answer is, you’re doing it. Right now.”