Suicide vs genocide: Rest in power, Aaron Bushnell

Bushnell’s extreme act of protest has put Western corporate media to shame.

In memory Aaron Bushnell Free Palestine
People leave notes and flowers during a vigil for US Air Force active-duty airman Aaron Bushnell outside the Israeli Embassy on February 26, 2024 in Washington, DC. [Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images/AFP]

On Sunday, February 25, 25-year-old active duty member of the United States Air Force Aaron Bushnell set himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy in the US capital of Washington, DC, in a one-airman revolt against the US-backed slaughter currently being perpetrated by the Israeli military in the Gaza Strip.

Over the past 143 days, Israel has killed nearly 30,000 Palestinians in the besieged coastal enclave. In video footage recorded prior to and during his self-immolation, Bushnell states that he will “no longer be complicit in genocide” and that he is “about to engage in an extreme act of protest – but compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonisers is not extreme at all”.

To be sure, Palestinians have long been accustomed to, well, burning to death at the hands of Israeli weaponry, ever since the state of Israel undertook to lethally invent itself on Palestinian land in 1948. The Israeli military’s use of skin-incinerating white phosphorus munitions in more recent years has no doubt contributed to the whole Palestinian “experience”.

After pertinently observing that US complicity in the genocide of Palestinians is “what our ruling class has decided will be normal”, Bushnell plants himself directly in front of the Israeli embassy gate – in full US military fatigues – and proceeds to douse himself with flammable liquid. As he rapidly burns to death, he repeatedly shouts: “Free Palestine”, while security personnel order him to get “on the ground”. One particularly helpful individual points a gun at the blaze.

In the aftermath of Bushnell’s self-immolation, the New York Times announced: “Man Dies After Setting Himself on Fire Outside Israeli Embassy in Washington, Police Say” – a rather strong contender, perhaps, for the most diluted and decontextualised headline ever. One wonders what folks would have said in 1965 had the US newspaper of record run headlines like: “Octogenarian Detroit Woman Dies After Setting Herself on Fire, Police Say – An Event Having Nothing Potentially To Do With Said Woman’s Opposition To The Vietnam War Or Anything Like That”.

Speaking of Vietnam War-related self-immolations, recall renowned US historian and journalist David Halberstam’s account of the 1963 demise in Saigon, South Vietnam, of the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc: “Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly… I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered even to think”.

And while such an intense and passionate form of suicide is no doubt bewildering to many, genocide should be all the more appalling; as Bushnell himself said, self-immolation is nothing “compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine”, where people know all too well how quickly human beings burn.

In Bushnell’s case, the US political-media establishment appears to be doing its best to not only decontextualise but also posthumously discredit him. Time Magazine’s write-up, for example, admonishes that the US “Defence Department policy states that service members on active duty should ‘not engage in partisan political activity’” – as though actively abetting a genocide weren’t politically “partisan”.

Furthermore, the magazine specifies, US military regulations “prohibit wearing the uniform during ‘unofficial public speeches, interviews’”, and other activities.

Perhaps Bushnell’s ashes can be tried in military court.

At the bottom of the Time article, readers are charitably given the following instructions: “If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental-health crisis or contemplating suicide, call or text 988” – which naturally implies that Bushnell was simply the victim of a “mental-health crisis” rather than someone making a most cogent and defiant political point in response to an extremely mentally disturbing political reality.

At the end of the day, anyone who is not experiencing a serious “mental-health crisis” over the genocide going down in Gaza with full US backing can be safely filed under the category of psychologically disturbed.

Of course, the US also perpetrated its very own genocide against Native Americans – another bloody phenomenon that has not been deemed worthy of diagnosis as a severe collective mental disturbance or anything of the sort. As per the official narrative, if you think it’s crazy for the US or its Israeli partner in crime to commit genocide, you’re the crazy one.

Coming from a family of US Air Force veterans myself – both of my grandfathers participated in the carnage in Vietnam – I have personally witnessed the psychological fallout that can attend service as empire’s executioners. Aaron Bushnell was meant to be a cog in the killing machine, but his principles cost him his life.

Indeed, according to a former colleague of Bushnell’s who worked with him to support the homeless community in San Antonio, Texas, he was “one of the most principled comrades I’ve ever known”. And while we journalists are supposed to be the ones speaking truth to power, suffice it to say that Bushnell has put Western corporate media to shame.

Rest in power, Aaron Bushnell.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.