An “extreme act of protest”: The long history of self-immolation as political statement

New York Self-Immolation Fatih Aktas/Anadolu via Getty Images
New York Self-Immolation Fatih Aktas/Anadolu via Getty Images
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This story contains explicit written descriptions of self-immolation. If you are in crisis, please call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

Increasingly, we are being confronted with the image of a body on fire. A human torch burning up in real-time in a public space.

Such images arrive at a time when Americans are grappling with a particularly dystopian image cast, from police marching into student protests on university campuses to the hellscape of images and videos coming out of the war in Gaza.

On April 19, Max Azzarello, a 37-year-old man and self-identified “investigative researcher” died after setting himself on fire outside Donald J. Trump’s trial in Manhattan. He is the third individual to publicly self-immolate in the United States in five months. In February, Aaron Bushnell, a 25-year-old active-duty member of the U.S. Air Force, self-immolated in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. In December, a person who has not been publicly identified was hospitalized in critical condition after setting themselves on fire near the Israeli consulate in Atlanta.

In a Substack post titled, “I have set myself on fire outside the Trump Trial,” Azzarello described his act as an “extreme act of protest.” These are the same words Bushnell used to characterize his own death in a livestream posted first on Twitch before circulating widely on social media.

This is likely not a coincidence but a citation. In the wake of Bushnell’s death, an Instagram account reportedly belonging to Azzarello posted a story of an image of Bushnell’s body being consumed with flames, along with the caption: “Heroes and martyrs, folks…God f——g bless you, Aaron Bushnell.”

After Azzarello’s death, and amidst nationwide debates about the meanings and modalities of political protest, I find myself returning to Bushnell’s video. [Note: A graphic description of the video follows.] That two-and-a-half-minute-long video — Bushnell’s digital suicide note — is horrifying, phantasmagoric, and familiar in equal measure. In it, Bushnell films himself walking toward the embassy gates. His voice is measured, lucid, and implacable. “I will no longer be complicit in genocide,” he states clearly. He continues: “I am about to engage in an extreme act of protest but compared to what people in Palestine have been experiencing at the hands of their colonizers, it’s not extreme at all.” These do not appear to be the ravings of a lunatic.

In the video, Bushnell props up his phone before stepping into the frame again and dousing himself in what appears to be gasoline or lighter fluid. He puts his patrol cap back on, then flicks a lighter around his ankles. “Free Palestine,” he says. Orange flames lick up the backs of his legs, the fire catching quickly on the fabric of his green military fatigues. He remains remarkably still, erect, almost at attention.

When the flames reach about waist-high, he begins to scream. “Free Palestine! Free Palestine!” Over and over. He screams the two words: “Free Palestine!” Are they a demand or a divination? He screams them exactly five more times, until his voice becomes coarse, almost inhuman with pain. He eventually collapses to the sidewalk. Off camera, police and security officers are yelling at him to “get on the ground.” One points a gun at Bushnell while he burns and continues pointing it at the fiery body crumpled on the pavement. Another officer yells, “I don’t need guns, I need fire extinguishers.” The audio cuts. Bushnell’s screams echo.

Aaron Bushnell did not have to scream while he burned for the world to hear him. When he set himself on fire, he was drawing on a very old and immediately recognizable (if not immediately intelligible) ritual of public self-burning as protest — a political language legible enough for Azzarello to recognize and reproduce less than two months later.

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After Bushnell’s death, comparisons were drawn quickly across social media to other self-burning protests. In 1963, the Buddhist Monk Thích Quảng Đức set himself on fire at a busy intersection in Saigon. His death, captured in an iconic photo by American photographer Malcolm Browne, drew global attention to Vietnam — and to political self-immolation. In its coverage of Bushnell’s death, New York Magazine noted that “since the Vietnam War, self-immolation has been a dramatic but rare act of protest” while The Daily Beast has called Azzarello’s death “part of a startling trend” of such deaths in the United States.

Above all, commentators from the wider Arab world were quick to connect Bushnell’s death to the highly mediatized public self-burning of Mohamed Bouazizi. The Tunisian street vendor was just a year older than Bushnell when he set himself on fire in front of a municipal building in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, on December 17, 2010. Bouazizi’s self-immolation catalyzed the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia as well as a series of antigovernment uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, often called the “Arab Spring.” What’s more, Bouazizi’s suicide in 2010 quickly spread well beyond Tunisia, producing a “copycat” effect and a dramatic uptick in suicides by public self-burning across the globe, spreading throughout North and West Africa and the Middle East. A longitudinal study published in the medical journal Burns showed that global rates of self-immolation had tripled in the five years following the self-burning of Bouazizi and that this was a “stable trend.”

Just a month after Bouazizi had died in the hospital from burn wounds, a Senegalese man set himself on fire on a sidewalk outside the Presidential Palace in Dakar while holding up a scrap of paper. Bystanders could not make out what was written on it, but the message of his suicide seemed clear: Bouazizi’s suicide had begun to travel. In the years that followed, self-immolations became more widespread in Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania. Although written in fire and effaced in ash, these deaths all become recognizable as messages of protest, refusal and resistance in reference to Bouazizi’s act.

There are many other relevant examples, of course. Wynn Alan Bruce, who self-immolated in front of the Supreme Court in Washington D.C. in 2022, and David Buckel, who set himself on fire in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in 2018 — both climate activists. Homa Darabi, the Iranian political activist who self-immolated in 1993 in protest of the compulsory hijab. Sahar Khodayari, an Iranian woman who set herself on fire in front of a courthouse in Tehran to protest the laws banning women from attending sporting events. Jan Palach, the 20-year-old Czech student who set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square in 1969 in protest against the end of the Prague Spring. Scholars of the history of self-immolation typically date the phenomenon to antiquity, to early Christian martyrdoms, and particularly to the Hindu practice of sati.

While social media and streaming technologies make such deaths more visible, and knowledge about them more readily available, these examples chart a truncated history. Contemporary public self-burnings draw their rhetorical and political force from their legibility in relation to an established practice of suicidal resistance. This is an ancient and nearly universal idiom that resurfaces, in different forms, in different places, and at different times, in the direst of circumstances. Historically, this has been the case especially in contexts of colonialism, imperialism and state violence.

Suicide, in other words, has always been a mode of political resistance — a language of protest and revolution. Self-killing has always been what anthropologist James C. Scott called “a weapon of the weak.”

In a Facebook post penned shortly before his death, 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.” Bushnell’s invocation of the specter of slavery, colonization and apartheid in his post and again in the livestream is haunting, given the long history of public suicide (both individual and collective) as a strategy of protest and resistance in contexts of oppression and unfreedom and under regimes of racial violence. Throughout the Atlantic world, enslaved Africans regularly used suicide and suicide-like behaviors as modes of resistance, fugitivity and protest in ways that directly undermined the slave economy — so much so that some of the earliest innovations with suicide prevention came not from the world of medical care but from the dehumanizing self-interestedness of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

As a scholar of suicide under colonization, I have spent perhaps an unusual amount of time thinking, talking and writing about acts of self-destruction — this most difficult of subjects — and especially their representations across a vast array of discourses and media, from scientific treatises and colonial archives to oral histories and literary texts to police files and news reports. Bushnell’s and Azzarello’s deaths both resonate with and differ from these instances of self-killing — which are in large part responses to colonial and state violence, contestations of unlivable structural inequalities — in significant ways.

It is always risky, but also necessary, to draw connections between different kinds of deaths, and attempt to see how contemporary modes of protest and refusal through self-destruction are shadowed and informed by older ones. This is part of the impasse and provocation of public suicide: the paradoxical sense that we have seen something like this before and, at the same time, that what we are seeing is unlike anything else.

Bushnell was not Bouazizi. This is important. The latter was repeatedly harassed by police and had his complaints ignored by government officials. Shortly before his death, his only means of earning a living wage, his fruit cart, had been confiscated. His public self-burning emerged out of a context of extreme socioeconomic disparity, rampant governmental corruption, colonial and neocolonial asymmetries, and political unrest. As far as we can know, he did not intend to be hailed as a martyr. He did not plan to become the symbol of a movement. His suicide was conscripted to ends and meanings he could not predict or answer for. Bouazizi did not leave a suicide note.

Bushnell, like Azzarello, was white. He was an American, originally from Massachusetts — an active-duty member of the most powerful military in the world. Before he died, he outlined what he planned to do and why. He made a will, specifying that his savings should be donated to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund and that he hoped for his ashes one day to be scattered in a free Palestine.

Bouazizi’s final words, supposedly, were directed to municipal government officials: “If you do not see me, I will burn.” They were an appeal to be seen in the immediate sense of "to have an audience with," but took on far-ranging resonance. Perhaps because of their semantic ambiguity, they became an injunction for the world to turn its eyes to Tunisia and the Maghreb and a metaphor for the invisibilization of the daily struggles of all downtrodden and oppressed peoples.

Bushnell’s and Azzarello’s last words — unlike Bouazizi's — tell us how they want their deaths to be understood: as “an extreme act of protest.”

Despite these differences, recent acts of self-immolation remain legible as protest precisely because of Bouazizi, and Quảng Đức, and so many resistant others — most from the Global South — who have protested myriad forms of displacement and dispossession.

In the weeks following Bushnell’s self-immolation, there were — and will likely continue to be — interviews, statements, speculations and theories about Bushnell’s frame of mind, about troubling behavior, about his upbringing, about early signs of distress or mental illness. For his part, Azzarello has largely been dismissed as a troubled conspiracy theorist who suffered from paranoia.

The discursive frames we bring to bear on voluntary death are powerful. Frequently, they radically overdetermine what and how a suicide means. In the wake of suicide, there is often — perhaps always — a desire to understand, a need to explain. Suicide scrambles our critical radars. It unsettles our usual frames of reference. It confronts us with an opaque message voiced in fatal and unverifiable idiom. It is a text whose author has already disappeared. Any response to such an act, including my own, is also a kind of trespass and failure. This does not mean that nothing can be gained from such an endeavor, that nothing can be learned from trying to understand the messages a suicide might contain.

I am not a psychiatrist. But I find the efforts to recuperate Bushnell’s death, in particular, as an instance of psychological rupture rather than a political statement troubling. To call Bushnell’s and Azzarello’s deaths “suicides” already begs the question (they used only the term “protest”).

Indeed, in their coverage of Bushnell’s death, a number of prominent news outlets immediately provided links to support for those in “mental-health crisis” or numbers for suicide hotlines. (Salon has included such wording in this story, too.) In this sense, the wheels of the powerfully racialized discursive apparatus that gathers around public acts of violence, including acts of self-destruction, are turning. When a white man shoots up a church or a school, he is sick but never a terrorist. When he lights himself on fire in a public space, he must be unwell or otherwise a fanatic (it has been reported that Bushnell was “an anarchist who grew up in a religious sect”).

What if he is neither? What if, instead, he is a fully rational member of the American military determined to make a political and deeply human point when no other means will get through? In that case, rather than dismissing or downplaying his death as incomprehensible, we would need to at least attempt to take that point seriously and consider its implications. To move toward a possible understanding. To resist the idea that such an act lies beyond the pale of comprehension. To understand is not to glorify, to respond is not to sanction.

Bushnell’s self-burning presents us with a unique set of paradoxes. He is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the first active-duty American servicemen to publicly self-immolate. If his death was provoked by a mental health crisis, it raises the question of how he remained on active duty without adequate psychiatric support. In that case, his suicide — a public cry for help — is the indictment of an entire system. But I think we should not be so quick to write off Bushnell’s self-burning as purely psychological, even if discussions of his death seem to have fallen easily into the ready-at-hand language that so often polarizes discussions of public suicide: Was his death a heroic martyrdom (as Azzarello seemed to view it) or the act of a madman? Should it be lauded or condemned?

Such questions bracket a long history of suicide as a tool of political protest in extremis. They risk depoliticizing what is potentially a profoundly political death. They are beside the point. Or, rather, they profoundly miss the point the man on fire was so desperate to make he managed to scream it six times before he died.

If you are in crisis, please call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.