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Aaron Bushnell: A Tragedy

27th of February 2024

 

A poignant act of protest unfolded on Sunday afternoon in Washington, DC, as Aaron Bushnell, a 25-year-old active-duty member of the US Air Force, immolated himself outside the Israeli Embassy. Bushnell’s tragic demise was a stark statement against what he perceived as the US government’s complicity in the ongoing violence and genocide in Gaza.

In a deeply symbolic gesture, Bushnell, clad in military attire, captured the attention of onlookers and law enforcement alike as he set himself on fire, his last words echoing a cry for freedom for Palestine. Video footage circulated widely, showcasing Bushnell’s solemn march towards the embassy, carrying what appeared to be a flask of gasoline. His declaration, “I will no longer be complicit in genocide. I’m about to engage in an extreme act of protest, but compared to what people are experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonisers, it’s not extreme at all. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal. Free Palestine,” encapsulated his resolute stance. [1]

His final words were “Free Palestine”.

The Pentagon labelled Bushnell’s death a “tragic event,” with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin closely monitoring developments. Emergency responders arrived swiftly on the scene, finding Secret Service personnel already extinguishing the flames. Despite efforts to save him, Bushnell succumbed to his injuries, sparking a nationwide conversation on the moral imperative to address the crisis in Gaza. [1]

Condolences and messages of solidarity inundated social media platforms in remembrance of Bushnell.

 

Who was Aaron Bushnell?

Hailing from Washington D.C., Bushnell specialised in software engineering and computer science, earning his degree from the University of Maryland Global Campus in 2023, as outlined in his LinkedIn profile. Currently enrolled at Southern New Hampshire University, he was on track to complete a Bachelor of Science degree next year.

A native of Washington, Bushnell enlisted in the US Air Force in May 2020, steadily advancing his career to attain the position of DevOps Engineer three years later.

On his LinkedIn page, he stated that he graduated from Air Force basic training “top of class” in November 2020 and was looking to  “to transition out of the US Air Force into software engineering”. Bushnell’s LinkedIn further describes his nack and fervor for tackling intricate problems through coding. His profile underscored his proficiency in communication and teamwork, skills honed through military service and civilian endeavors. [2]

Bushnell’s impassioned act of self-immolation drew parallels to historical injustices, challenging societal complacency in the face of systemic oppression. His Facebook post, circulated widely on social media, provocatively questioned individual responses to injustice, resonating with audiences across the country.

 

Other such protests

His death marks the second such instance of self-immolation in protest against the genocide in Gaza, underscoring the urgency of addressing the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the region.

In December, a woman engaged in self-immolation outside an Israeli consulate in Atlanta, an action characterised by US authorities as an “extreme political protest.” Suffering third-degree burns, she remained unidentified, with her name and age undisclosed by law enforcement. A Palestinian flag was discovered at the site, indicating her solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

On November 2, 1965, Norman Morrison, an advocate against the Vietnam War, doused himself in kerosene and set himself ablaze beneath the office of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara at the Pentagon, expressing vehement opposition to US involvement in the conflict.

On Feb 16, 1999, Nejla Coskun, aged 14, narrowly avoided death by self immolation outside the Greek embassy in London. The protest was held in demonstration against the arrest of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the PKK. In shocking scenes, Nejla Ignited, herself and sprinted amidst startled demonstrators, her back and shoulders ablaze. Despite the agony, she defiantly ran, arms outstretched in victory symbols.

In 1993, Graham Bamford ignited a blaze by pouring gasoline over himself in broad daylight in front of the British Parliament, shedding light on the atrocities and genocide in Bosnia, a stark demonstration of his anguish over the suffering of the Bosnian people. [1]

 

Media coverage criticism

Numerous prominent US and Western newspapers faced criticism from Palestinians, journalists, and academics on social media for their reporting on Bushnell. Yet, some users, such as the Cambridge academic Assal Rad, highlighted that many news headlines omitted the rationale behind Bushnell’s protest.

 

 

Reaction

After his self-immolation, Bushnell’s actions received praise from activists like Aya Hijazi and Dyab Abou Jahjah, as well as United States Green Party candidate Jill Stein and independent candidate Cornel West, all of whom paid homage after his passing. While some hailed his act as courageous and selfless, others criticised Bushnell for resorting to extreme measures akin to suicide. This faction cautioned against glorifying self-immolation as a political protest method, expressing concerns about potential emulation.

The Iraq war veteran Mike Prysner in a tribute to Bushnell, highlighted the crisis of conscience that a substantial number of US service members face for being part of “an institution of killing”. Prysner stated, “The torment of Israel’s barbarism has been a trying time for all people with a conscience. We have all reeled for months through rage and hopelessness…For Bushnell, that meant also having to put on the uniform of the institution loading the weapons…providing tactical and strategic assistance to the genocide. Not only that, but one also doing the killing: conducting the air strikes on Yemen, Iraq and Syria against people we have no reason or right to kill.”

Prysner further emphasised: “Bushnell saw the plain truth: that he was an accomplice to all that. The truth killed him. The Pentagon brass killed him. Joe Biden and Congress killed him.” [4]

Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, released a statement subsequent to Bushnell’s protest declaring that it “confirms the state of anger among the American people due to the official American involvement in the zionist genocide war being waged on the Gaza Strip. It also indicates that the status of the Palestinian cause, especially in American circles, is becoming more deeply entrenched in the global conscience, and reveals the truth of the zionist entity as a cheap colonial tool in the hands of savage imperialism.” [4]

Pro-Palestinian and anti-war organisations have coordinated vigils across various US cities to commemorate Bushnell. In Washington DC, a vigil took place outside the Israeli embassy, the site of Bushnell’s demonstration.

Numerous individuals have also linked Aaron Bushnell’s protest to the tragic incident involving the killing of US citizen Rachel Corrie in 2003 in Rafah, where she attempted to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home by a bulldozer.

In the initial moments of Bushnell’s livestream, his declaration as an active-duty soldier was followed by the poignant statement, “I will no longer be complicit in genocide.” This sentiment resonates with many across the United States and many millions of people worldwide, from diverse backgrounds, who have been actively demonstrating in solidarity with Palestine since October 7.

 

 

[1] Middle East Eye. (2024). Aaron Bushnell: The US air man who shouted ‘Free Palestine’ before lighting himself on fire. [online] Available at: https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/aaron-bushnell-air-man-who-shouted-free-palestine-lighting-himself-fire.

[2] Aaron Bushnell: US airman dies after setting himself on fire outside Israeli embassy in Washington. (2024). BBC News. [online] 26 Feb. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-68405119

[3] Assal Rad (2024). X post. [online] Available at: https://x.com/AssalRad/status/1761979317779824767?s=20

[4] Dispatch, P. (2024). Self-immolation of Aaron Bushnell an ‘indicator…of the profound change in consciousness in the United States’. [online] Peoples Dispatch. Available at: https://peoplesdispatch.org/2024/02/27/self-immolation-of-aaron-bushnell-an-indicatorof-the-profound-change-in-consciousness-in-the-united-states/

Tariq Kurd was born and grew up in Hertfordshire. His family is originally from Halabja, Kurdistan but due to periodic migration currently reside across the Baluchistan region.
He has a BA Hons. in History from the Open University. Besides English, Tariq can speak Baluchi and Brahvi, he is also conversant in Persian and Pashto.
His has an eclectic range of interests including military and tribal history. Tariq lives in London and is currently studying Islamic apologetics through the Sapience Institute.