Why Did Cops Point a Gun at a Burning Gaza Protester?

Police car vehicle of United States Secret Service
Police car vehicle of United States Secret Service. | Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press

Active-duty U.S. Airman Aaron Bushnell set himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., on Sunday. While Bushnell lay dying on the ground, engulfed by flames, officers from the U.S. Secret Service aggressively tried to give him orders and pointed a weapon at him.

"I don't need guns," another agent shouted in frustration. "I need fire extinguishers."

Bushnell's act, which eventually killed him, was meant to protest U.S. support for Israel's war effort in Gaza. (The Air Force is currently transporting weapons and providing satellite intelligence for the Israeli military.) Bushnell, a military I.T. engineer, declared that he would "no longer be complicit in genocide" and shouted "Free Palestine." 

But video of the event also showcased the disorderly, confused, and aggressive law enforcement response. Bushnell livestreamed his self-immolation on Twitch. The livestreaming platform quickly removed the video, but independent journalist Talia Jane obtained and shared a censored copy of the video online a few hours later.

Even the sanitized clip, which includes disturbing audio of Bushnell's screams, demonstrates how painful the act was. And it also shows the chaotic response by first responders, who treated Bushnell as both a victim in need of saving and a deadly threat.

As Bushnell burst into flames and began screaming in pain, a voice off-screen aggressively ordered Bushnell to get "on the ground" over and over again. Then two Secret Service agents ran into the frame, one of them spraying Bushnell with a fire extinguisher, another pointing his gun at the burning man.

The agent with the fire extinguisher began to argue with his colleagues off-screen. He wanted more fire extinguishers for Bushnell, who was still on fire. 

"The armed officer was ensuring the safety of the two Secret Service officers who were working to extinguish the fire and render aid to the individual," the Secret Service said in a statement to Reason.

Several more agents showed up with fire extinguishers, finally putting out the blaze nearly two agonizing minutes after it started. Bushnell was brought to a local hospital and pronounced dead several hours later, according to a police report obtained by Newsweek.

The video sparked an online debate about the Secret Service's response.

"Whatever your view on self-immolation, nothing betrays the monstrousness of our political culture like that moment: from the local to the federal level, the state meets every challenge with an opportunity to kill," wrote New York local historian Asad Dandia, who successfully sued the NYPD for illegally surveilling him a decade ago, in a social media post.

There is a long tradition of self-immolation in antiwar protests around the world, dating back to the U.S. war in Vietnam and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. Several months ago, an unnamed woman also lit herself on fire outside the Israeli consulate in Atlanta while carrying a Palestinian flag, an act that police described as "an act of extreme political protest."

U.S. Secret Service Communications Chief Anthony Guglielmi insisted in a statement to Reason that "this situation was unpredictable and occurred rapidly. In that instant, the level of threat to the public and the embassy was unknown, and our officers acted swiftly and professionally." The video shows that the situation did unfold rapidly, but viewers can judge for themselves just how necessary the guns were.

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