In His Right Mind

The meaning of Aaron Bushnell’s sacrifice.

[Content warning: graphic photo]

Aaron Bushnell has died. He self-immolated on a Sunday afternoon, in front of the Israeli Embassy in Washington D.C., shouting “Free Palestine” until he could no longer draw breath. There are no other words to put around that act, not really. His own words leading up to the moment were confident and quiet. “I will no longer be complicit in genocide,” he said. “I am about to engage in an extreme act of protest. But compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers, it’s not extreme at all.” 

By saying that, Bushnell placed his act within the context of the 143 days of horror Palestinians have suffered since October 7. He refused to be a part of it any longer—not the white phosphorus burning children to the bone, not the indiscriminate bombing that has killed 30,000 people and destroyed libraries, bakeries, schools, hospitals, and entire families, and not the celebrations of genocide happening on the other side of the Gaza border. 

There is a certain ghoulish delight taken in the suffering of Palestinians. At Keren Shalom, Israelis place bouncy castles in front of aid trucks to ensure help is delayed and denied. On social media, the soldiers of the IDF film themselves laughing and giving the thumbs-up as they bulldoze Palestinians’ homes and loot their belongings. 

The response to Bushnell’s self-immolation has been similarly cruel. Most press coverage has refused to print his last words, pretending to be unsure of motivations recorded in excruciating detail. A typical headline in the Wall Street Journal reads simply “U.S. Air Force Member Dies After Setting Himself on Fire Outside Israeli Embassy,” with no mention of Palestine. Online, trolls have taken an act of courage and honor and dismissed it as the last gasp of a deranged person who didn’t know what they were doing. With the mindset of a schoolyard bully, they encourage anyone who does have their conscience stirred by Bushnell’s actions to “follow his lead.” A few examples are below:

I have never heard such an echo from the emptiness at the core of some humans. It is an echo that says the rotting is done, there is nothing behind this facade but fear and dust. There is no place for agony to rest or to resonate. They are hollow.

And they are wrong. Bushnell did not give up in despair. He made a deliberate choice, one calculated to maximize the impact of his protest, to give appropriate weight to the atrocities being perpetrated in his name as an American and as a servicemember. He explained his thinking, chose his last words, set up a dead man’s link to ensure his sacrifice would not be censored or lost. To deny this is to deny him his agency and his humanity in his very last act.

Letting the world move you is dangerous when your world is built like Omelas, perched on top of intentional suffering. Compassion for the world, for nature, for others, and for yourself means that you disturb the balance. Your weighty self shifts things as you step in to help others, making it easier for people to see behind the curtain. Once you learn about the suffering at the core of the world—and I mean really learn, have it lodged in your soul so deeply that every time your heart beats it hurts—you have only one choice to make: abandon the system and the cruelty that makes your world run, or choose it. 

This is the choice Bushnell has asked us to make. Do we finally acknowledge that this system is untenable? Or do we close our eyes to the agony it creates? 

Those mocking or denying Bushnell’s self-immolation have already allowed their fear to consume them. In attempting to shred his reputation and cast aspersions on his motives, they reveal that they are unable to recognize the best parts of ourselves—courage, honor, self-sacrifice, and compassion. It is impossible for them. To acknowledge the conviction and agony of this person is to realize that their own lives are a lie, built on pain and empty of meaning. 

People who believe in a supremacist ideology—like the Israeli officials who describe Palestinians as “human animals,” or the people around the world who support their genocidal actions—are cowards at their core. They justify their existence through exclusion, able to imagine their own humanity only when it is denied to others. They are unable to fathom that a person of conviction, of strength, of courage, would sacrifice everything, give up their own life to stop the suffering of others they had never met. They do not understand what Bushnell did. And they would never be able to do it themselves.

The last post Bushnell made online was as concise and confident as his last words: 

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.

On February 25, 2024, Aaron Bushnell, a member of the United States Armed Forces, self-immolated in uniform in a deliberate, conscious echo of the protest that became symbolic of America’s disastrous involvement in Vietnam: the monk Thích Quảng Đức, serene in his distinctive robes as flames consumed him on the corner of a busy intersection in Saigon. 

Bushnell made his protest during the administration of a President who watched the Vietnam war unfold firsthand. He was speaking directly to a Commander-in-Chief who has seen the aftermath of three wars fueled by lies, and has now begun his own. In the 1970s, President Biden dismissed protestors against the Vietnam war as “assholes.” Today, apparently unable to learn from history, he shows the same callous arrogance. Bushnell’s self-immolation is unlikely to change that. It can change us, though, if we let it. 

The Vietnam war did not end with Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation. There were twelve more years of horrific bombing, of protests, of My Lai and Tet Offensives. Kent State wouldn’t happen for another seven years. This is a long, long fight we are in. Let Bushnell’s final act draw you closer to your convictions and to the people that share them. Let his cry echo through you and your actions for all the years to come.

Free Palestine.

Keira Havens is a veteran of the United States Air Force. She can recognize courage, and honor, when she sees it. If this piece moved you, please consider taking action: Donate to the Red Crescent to reach the people of Gaza, or Palestine Legal to protect those speaking out, or donate an esim to keep Palestine connected to the world, or join Tech for Palestine to connect with others. 

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