‘Extreme act of protest’: USAF officer Aaron Bushnell self-immolates, refuses complicity in genocide
Demonstrators gather during a vigil for Aaron Bushnell outside the Israeli Embassy, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, in Washington. | Mark Schiefelbein / AP

On Sunday, Feb. 25, Aaron Bushnell, age 25, an active-duty officer of the U.S. Air Force from San Antonio, Texas, self-immolated in front of the Israeli Embassy in D.C. to protest U.S. government support for Israel’s war against Gaza. Bushnell live-streamed his protest on Twitch, with the video subsequently being shared widely on social media.

Narrating the video, Bushnell can be heard saying, “I will no longer be complicit in genocide.” He then says he “about to engage in an extreme act of protest,” but that “compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers, it’s not extreme at all.”

He then arrives at the gate of the embassy wearing combat fatigues and douses himself in an accelerant before lighting himself on fire and repeatedly screaming “Free Palestine!” as his body is engulfed in flames.

First responders on the scene acted only after Bushnell collapsed to the ground. A security officer can be seen pointing a gun at Bushnell as his body is he burning while another grabs a fire extinguisher. The officer putting out the flames then yells, “I don’t need guns! I need fire extinguishers!”

Bushnell was then taken to a nearby hospital, where he died from his injuries several hours later.

In a message left before carrying out his protest, Bushnell wrote:

“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.”

A series of scenes from Aaron Bushnell’s live Twitch stream.

His individual act of protest was a response to the Biden administration’s unstinting support for and complicity in Israel’s war against the Palestinian people. A similar act took place in front of the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta in December 2023 when a woman hoisting a Palestinian flag self-immolated but survived. Her name or any other details have yet to be released.

History shows that such extreme acts of political protest often take place when people feel helpless and unable to bring about change. There have been cases of self-immolation as a protest in response to variety of issues in recent decades, including U.S. wars in Vietnam and Iraq and government inaction on climate change.

The act came to worldwide attention in 1963 when Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk in South Vietnam set himself alight in Saigon to protest the U.S. puppet government’s persecution of Buddhists.

Several vigils were held for Bushnell around the country following the self-immolation, including in Washington. Many speakers at these events have criticized mainstream corporate media outlets for quickly claiming Brushnell was “mentally sick” without investigation or evidence, or for reporting that authorities were “unsure of his motives” when he clearly stated why he was engaging in this act.

In his will, Bushnell left his savings to a charity for Palestinian children. Several Palestinian resistance groups praised the act as a protest and said Bushnell is being considered a martyr of the war on Gaza.

Such an “extreme act of protest” as self-immolation is a signal that the system is not responding to dissent—an expression of hopelessness in the face of a U.S. political establishment united in its support for the genocidal campaign being carried out by the Netanyahu government.

Collective and united action as part of the organized ceasefire and peace movements—in the streets, in elections, and everywhere—is the way to change the balance of forces. It is the only course of action that can revive hope in what may seem like a hopeless moment.

Editor’s Note: People’s World sends condolences to the Bushnell family and reiterates our call for the U.S. government to back an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. The Biden administration has the power to prevent such a tragic event from occurring again.

If you are feeling alone and having thoughts of suicide—whether or not you are in crisis—or know someone who is, don’t remain silent. Talk to someone you can trust through the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. Call or text 988 or chat the lifeline.

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Jamal Rich
Jamal Rich

Jamal Rich writes from Washington, D.C. where he is active with the Claudia Jones School for Political Education.