After Setting Himself on Fire, US Airman Aaron Bushnell Dies Declaring ‘Free Palestine’

Aaron Bushnell poses for a photo in a red shirt
Aaron Bushnell, an active duty U.S. airman, died on February 25, 2024 after self-immolating outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. to protest the Gaza genocide. (Photo: Talia Jane/X)

“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.”

BRETT WILKINS

Feb 26, 2024 by https://www.commondreams.org/

“My name is Aaron Bushnell, I am an active-duty member of the United States 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.”

That’s how the 25-year-old from San Antonio introduced himself—and bade farewell—to the world in a livestream video of his Sunday afternoon walk to the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. Arriving outside the front gate, Bushnell set down his phone, took eight paces, turned to face the camera, doused himself in an unknown accelerant, donned his service cap, and set himself alight. He repeatedly screamed “Free Palestine” as he burned.

Uniformed Secret Service officers arrived on the scene even before Bushnell was able to ignite the fire. They repeatedly ordered him to “get on the ground.”

“Get on the ground, you fucker,” someone—presumably an officer—can be heard saying in the video as Bushnell screams and writhes in agony. He managed one final, garbled, yet unmistakable “free Palestine” as his body was engulfed in flames.

Nearly two-and-a-half minutes into the video, an officer in a white shirt rushes in with an extinguisher while an officer points his pistol at Bushnell’s burning body.

“I don’t need guns,” implored the man in the white shirt, “I need fire extinguishers.”

NPRreported Bushnell was rushed to a hospital in critical condition. He died Sunday evening.

Bushnell left a final message on social media early Sunday morning.

“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?'” he wrote in his first Facebook post in nearly six years. “The answer is, you’re doing it. Right now.”

Some observers criticized U.S. corporate media outlets for publishing articles with headlines omitting the words “Gaza,” “Palestine,” or “genocide.”

Others took aim at reports attributing Bushnell’s act to mental health issues.

“They will try to spin-doctor it as mental health issues, but he was rational and clear about his political reasoning, which resonates with [the] majority of the world,” Syracuse University professor Farhana Sultana said on social media. “May his sacrifice not be in vain. Indeed. it was legitimate moral outrage and courage against the holocaust and barbarity in Palestine with U.S. full participation. May his sacrifice not be in vain, may his last words on this earth ring true. #FreePalestine.”

CounterPunch editor Joshua Frank wrote: “Please, stop saying Aaron Bushnell was mentally ill. The real mental illness is witnessing a genocide taking place and not doing a thing to stop it.”

More than 100,000 Palestinians—mostly women and children—have been killed or wounded by Israeli bombs and bullets since the October 7 attacks on Israel. Around 90% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been forcibly displaced, and at least hundreds of thousands of Gazans are on the brink of starvation.

The U.S. government backs Israel with nearly $4 billion in annual military aid and diplomatic support including three vetoes of United Nations Security Council cease-fire resolutions. The Biden administration is seeking an additional $14.3 billion in armed assistance for Israel, and has twice sidestepped Congress to fast-track emergency military aid.

Last month, The Interceptreported that documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request suggested that the Biden administration deployed a U.S. Air Force team to Israel to assist the Israel Defense Forces with targeting intelligence.

Bushnell’s death is the second reported U.S. self-immolation since the start of the Gaza genocide. On December 1, a woman—whose identity and outcome remain unknown—carrying a Palestinian flag was hospitalized in critical condition after setting herself alight outside the Israeli consulate in Atlanta.

Police called it an “act of extreme political protest.” Israeli Consul-General Anat Sultan-Dadon called it an act of “hate and incitement toward Israel.”

People have set themselves on fire as an act of political protest for many centuries. Following the examples of Vietnamese Buddhist monks and nuns who self-immolated in 1963 to protest persecution by the U.S.-backed Ngô Đình Diệm dictatorship, at least half a dozen Americans burned themselves to death to protest the Vietnam War. Americans also self-immolated over the 1991 and 2003 invasions of Iraq, the climate emergency, alleged corruption at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and other reasons.

In December 2010, the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi was a major catalyst for the Arab Spring uprising that swept across North Africa and the Middle East.

The late Vietnamese Buddhist monk, peace activist, and author Thích Nhất Hạnh explained in a letter to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that the monks and nuns who self-immolated were not committing suicide. Rather, their self-sacrifices were aimed “at moving the hearts of the oppressors, and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured.”

“It is done,” he explained, “to wake us up.”

The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline—which offers 24/7, free, and confidential support—can be reached by calling or texting 988, or through chat at 988lifeline.org.