The self-immolation of Aaron Bushnell should serve as a wake up call for the military

Israeli Embassy US Air Force member sets himself on fire Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images
Israeli Embassy US Air Force member sets himself on fire Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images
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“This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal.”

In the coming days, I hope that there will be much reportage and discussion about Aaron Bushnell’s life and his chosen death. I hope that his story will be recorded, if for no other reason than posterity. May his last words spur a change.

In many such cases, however, the first draft of history is often, unfortunately, the only draft. We have seen this story before.

Friends and family of the 25-year-old Air Force service member from Massachusetts will be interviewed, poking at their emotional wounds for the benefit of the press. The cause for which Bushnell gave his life, the liberation of Palestine, will be sketched out in the abstract, leaving it unclear as to how someone could feel so strongly about something that they would be willing to die for it in perhaps the most horrific way possible. Many commentators will say that his dramatic death by self-immolation on the front steps of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.  was regrettable, that this didn’t need to happen, that they agree with Bushnell’s sentiment but not with his horrifying method, that his act of sacrifice was carried out in vain. Others will smear him as a madman, a misguided boy who fell victim to pro-Hamas propaganda, a cautionary tale. Meanwhile, the genocide in Gaza still continues. Bushnell’s name will be logged like so many others before him — Alice HerzFlorence BeaumontRonald BrazeeGeorge Winne Jr., Norman Morrison, Ryszard Siwiec, David Buckel, Wynn Bruce — but a blip on the mainstream media’s radar, a hero in some radical zines and blogs perhaps, a curiosity case in some graduate level thesis forty years from now, but then what? A memorial plaque in a genocide remembrance museum in some far-off imaginary Palestinian state? “Fil mish-mish,” the Arabs say. What is for certain is that the Bushnell family will be left to pick up the pieces of a life now fading from memory.

I say these things because this has all happened before, over and over again. I want Bushnell’s death to stir the conscience of our nation. I confess I am not optimistic.

Our society is not able to comprehend people like Bushnell and their actions because we have totally spurned the ability to be morally serious people, along with the vulnerability, earnestness, and humanity which this requires. People don’t give a shit about anything because it’s easier not to. When someone like Bushnell comes along and lights themselves on fire, they indict the whole of our broken society. 

“I’m an active duty member of the United States Air Force, and I will no longer be complicit in genocide,” Bushnell, who became active duty in 2020 during the depths of COVID lockdowns, proclaimed while dressed in full fatigues. The message made clear to his fellow service members.  

I am telling you, if for nothing more than our mere survival, let alone moral integrity: We cannot ignore the messages of people like Bushnell, as much as we’d like to. They are the vanguard that says, either do something about this, or we will all continue to perish. “We are but darkened groping souls, that know not the light often because of its very blinding radiance,” wrote W.E.B. Du Bois in his biography of radical abolitionist John Brown:

Only in time is truth revealed. …and ever and again after the world has complacently dodged and compromised with, and skillfully evaded a great evil, there shines, suddenly, a great white light — an unwavering, unflickering brightness, blinding by its all-seeing brilliance, making the whole world simply a light and a darkness — a right and a wrong. Then men tremble and writhe and waver. They whisper, “But – but – of course;” “the thing is plain, but it is too plain to be true – it is true but truth is not the only thing in the world.” Thus they hide from the light, they burrow and grovel, and yet ever in, and through, and on them blazes that mighty light with its horror of darkness and behind it peals the voice…that must be answered. … It is at once surprising, baffling and pitiable to see the way in which men — honest American citizens — faced this light.

When will we finally face this light? That, if nothing else, is what Aaron Bushnell wanted.

We are witnessing a genocide in Gaza. It is plain. No serious person can mince their words nearly five months after October 7. So long as this continues, we can expect to see more people like Aaron Bushnell. There were others before him who are worth examining.

Two people so far in the U.S. have self-immolated in response to the climate crisis, David Buckel and Wynn Bruce. Perhaps dozens of Westerners self-immolated in response to America’s war in Vietnam. Others have self-immolated in response to rampant inequalityforever wars, or their utter disempowerment. Looking at the words of these immolators, their reasonings for lighting themselves on fire are quite similar.

People living under a system that is responsible for mass immiseration and death — such as with America’s constant wars, or with Western powers making only shallow moves on addressing the climate crisis for which they are largely responsible, or with the facilitation of genocide — will feel something drastic must be done in order to call attention and stir action. People will feel isolated by the seeming apathy and ignorance all around them. A constant theme in the words of self-immolators is that they felt that they had done everything they could do, the powerful weren’t listening, and that those around them weren’t doing enough. 

Florence Beaumont, a longtime labor organizer who set herself on fire in Los Angeles in 1967 in protest of America’s war in Vietnam, “had a deep feeling against the slaughter,” her husband said. “Florence had done everything she could to stop the war. She lived for the peace movement. She wrote hundreds of letters to her congressmen, her senators, all she got back were form letters. She passed out literature, attended rallies and marches…She registered voters in the Peace and Freedom Party. … But the war had her so frustrated. She would sit and wring her hands when they reported the war news. She felt she had to do something, to make a better world and to wake people up.”

Alice Herz, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany and the first American to self-immolate in response to America’s war in Vietnam in 1965, spoke to her friend shortly after President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement of the Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. Her friend recalled Herz saying, “‘What can we do? What can we do?’ I tried to console her. I told her that bad as things were, I saw some hope. She said I should be more worried, that this was just the way things had been in Germany.” Another friend said that Herz felt like she was running out of options for making change. “I’ve written everything I can,” she told her, “I’ve spoken everywhere; what can I do?”

What these self-immolators do cannot simply be dismissed as an act borne out of mental health struggles . Theirs is an action compelled by the inability of our structures to respond to the needs of the people. Those who knew these immolators knew that they acted rationally and out of love for humanity. A friend of Beaumont’s said “She was a gentle, thoughtful person who was not known for irrational action. Possessing a rare combination of strength and humanity, she did not act out of weakness or despair.” In the eulogy she gave for Herz at her memorial ceremony, Ruth Gage-Colby, a pacifist leader with Women Strike for Peace, said “in an insane society, Alice sought to make a completely sane testimony,” and that Herz “was not a fanatic, nor a propagandist, but a sincere and intelligent lady.” Later, Gage-Colby said that she was honored to give a eulogy “for such a fine, wonderful friend.” She described Herz as “a warm, loving, truly gentle person, with an unconquerable spirit and a rare combination of moral and physical courage.” Upon visiting her in the hospital, a fellow organizer for Detroit Women for Peace, Lillian Lerman, told Detroit Free Press that Herz “is a rational, reasonable, well-educated woman. It is difficult to see how she could do this — just imagine feeling so strongly.”

In a letter to the Los Angeles Times, a woman defended Beaumont’s immolation from charges of insanity with words that could have been written today about Aaron Bushnell’s sacrifice:

The flames that destroyed this woman were in the hope that more of us would search the dark corners of our own souls and question our complaisance and complicity in the destruction of human life.

In an insane world where the bombing and burning of defenseless villages is an everyday occurrence, visible nightly on television, it unfortunately sometimes takes the expressed feeling of an anguished soul to shock us awake again. If Florence Beaumont was deranged, then sanity is defined by our nuclear stockpile, and insanity by a woman’s sacrificial compassion for human suffering.

Immolations such as Bushnell’s are to be expected in our broken society. I’m afraid they are only going to increase. But troublingly, acts of self-destruction won’t always be directed only at the self. The same factors which contribute to someone choosing to self-immolate can produce quite more destructive outcomes. People feeling betrayed and helpless may, on the constructive end of the spectrum, organize themselves to exert popular control over their society. Or, remaining atomized, they may try to reclaim individual power in pyrrhic victories over others through domestic violence, bullying, mass shootings, and terrorism. As war, famine, political deadlock, and the climate crisis all worsen and more people begin to suffer the consequences, we can expect to see acts of self-destruction, from self-immolation to mass murder, get worse.

The mainstream media has consistently ignored or downplayed the causes for which people self-immolate. The establishment press was caught sleeping on the litany of atrocities occurring in Vietnam; it ignored or downplayed the significance of antiwar immolations, treating them as mere peculiarities; it currently ignores or downplays the exigencies of the climate crisis; it has offered scant reporting on the person who self-immolated in Atlanta over Israel’s genocide in Gaza; it dehumanizes Palestinians while uplifting the “worthy” victims of America’s officially designated enemies, such as Ukrainians. In the face of all this, an individual with strong convictions who feels isolated, helpless, and betrayed will turn towards drastic action.

Today’s collective mood of helplessness is not, I contend, stemming only from the large-scale societal problems we face. The root of it, rather, is the well-founded belief that the people with dominion over our lives are enforcing an undemocratic system that necessarily leads to such societal problems, and that this system is so powerful, self-serving, and self-perpetuating, that any attempts to alter or abolish it are futile. There is no longer an official mode of redress in our society. The self-immolators of the Vietnam War era understood this. They saw that all of the protesting, letter writing, sit-ins, teach-ins, and hippies fucking each other was not stopping the bloodshed in Vietnam. The same is true for the immolators of today.

There is no due process any longer; no official recourse; every attempt at going through the “proper channels” is either ignored or suppressed. Our protests did not stop the war in Vietnam. Our protests did not stop NAFTA. Our protests did not stop the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Our protests did not stop the oil pipelines. Our protests did not stop police violence. Our protests have not stopped the genocide in Gaza.

As every Palestinian death represents another irrevocable failure on our part, the best I can say is that every action carries a flame. We can never really know what we inspire. Lord knows most of the people who set themselves on fire in protest of the Vietnam War are now long forgotten. And their deaths didn’t stop U.S. soldiers from murdering 5 million Vietnamese. But that’s not really the point. We don’t do such things because we will succeed, as much as we’d like to. We do it because it is right. In the West, there are those who are currently blockading arms shipments to Israel, defacing the buildings of weapons manufacturers, disrupting the meetings and speeches of complicit politicians, staging symbolic acts like die-ins, boycotting Israeli goods and other companies that do business with Israel, lobbying for universities to divest from the apartheid regime, and going on national television to decry the hypocrisy of establishment media. All of these acts are needed and welcomed. But it’s never enough. Even as the Houthis in Yemen blockade international shipping lanes and attack Israel-bound vessels in solidarity with the Palestinians, Western coalitions bomb these fighters. Naked power is winning. 

Still, such futility by itself, in the end, has little bearing on the value of acts of resistance themselves. If we measured the whole value of an act of resistance only by its immediate efficacy, there would be no moral reason for revolt in the first place. Of course, the ends matter. But that is not the reason why we choose to affirm our humanity through struggle and sacrifice. Of course, we want things to be better. But just because it seems impossible doesn’t mean we relinquish ourselves to these systems of death. To give up like that would be a total defeat.

The naked corruption, fecklessness, and moral decrepitude of the political, economic, and media elite, all of whom are beyond the reach of the same laws that are levied so harshly against the great mass of us, leads to our prevalent cynicism, apathy, political and civic dislocation, and our collective rage. This rank corruption, what Thomas Paine, when referring to the despotic French monarchy, described as “the Augean stable of parasites and plunderers too abominably filthy to be cleansed, by anything short of a complete and universal revolution,” degrades the soul of our society and renders the principle of the rule of law into a cruel joke.

“This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal,” Bushnell reminded us. Moments later, engulfed in flames and on the ground, he had a gun aimed at him by a U.S. Secret Service member.

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There are few who see where humanity is headed and who have the fortitude to rebel against it. The immolators had this vision. Their vision was attended by a profound sensitivity and love for humanity. David Buckel, perhaps the first climate immolator in America, “was always a more sensitive and gentle soul,” his niece said. Friends of Wynn Bruce, who immolated on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court over climate change in 2022, said he “had a huge heart” and that he did what he did as “an act of compassion and a desire for his life to go to something that he really cared about.”

You may not agree with someone’s convictions. You may not agree with their actions that follow from those convictions, be it self-immolation or an act of terrorism. But to simply operate under the assumption that our society is healthy, people in power are benevolent, and the actions of our government are always righteous, and to then paint anyone who lashes out against these systems as an incoherent madman, someone who is obviously mentally ill and irrational is to be dismissive of the very real conditions that drive people to extreme acts. It is to ensure that those acts will continue and even swell.

The self-immolations of the Vietnam War era divided the public. Some called them insane, ineffectual and deluded. Others called them saints, martyrs and prophets. Given that we now have a fuller picture of what happened in Vietnam, with U.S. soldiers responsible for the murder of millions of Vietnamese and the torture, rape, and maiming of countless more, the antiwar immolators may be called the vanguard. They saw the path that the U.S. was going down. Those such as Alice Herz precipitated the broader, intense antiwar movement of the later sixties and early seventies. Through her sacrifice, she lit the way forward and kept hope aflame.

Herz, as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, understood the inhumanity that humans are capable of. She could not sit idly by in 1965 as she watched her adoptive country begin its own industrial mass slaughter of Vietnamese. In a letter to a fellow activist dated just days before her immolation, Herz wrote, “The air is full of mendacious fog. As I listen to the radio news getting more menacing with every hour, I ask what remains of America to distinguish this country from Germany, as I knew it in the first terrible months of the Third Reich?” Herz, emulating the sacrifice of Thich Quảng Dức in Saigon, presaged the immolations of Norman Morrison, Roger Allen LaPorte, Florence Beaumont, Ronald Brazee, George Winne Jr., and others in the West. David Buckel and Wynn Bruce are the vanguards of today’s climate crisis, itself a form of industrialized slaughter.

Aaron Bushnell, as a U.S. service member, was intimately acquainted with the criminal role that the U.S. military plays in the world. He has fallen in the same line as those brave souls before him who chose to sacrifice themselves in order to wake up a slumbering, complicit people. Bushnell took up the flag of Palestine. He offered a shining example for the rest of us. May he not have died in vain.