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Aaron Bushnell’s Self-Immolation: A Valid Form of Protest

By Juhaina Rauph

Copy Editor


Via “commie” on kolektiva.media


Aaron Bushnell might have only had six viewers during his stream, but soon there would be thousands of people viewing the video of his protest in front of the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C. He died on the 25th of February in 2024, after deciding to enact one of the most extreme methods of protest: Self-Immolation.


     Minutes before the event, Bushnell started a livestream on Twitch to announce and document what he was about to do. The harrowing video includes the main course of events, from him stating his intent, to the aftermath, when the fire was extinguished and an officer found the camera.


     “My name is Aaron Bushnell. I am an active-duty member of the United States Air Force, and I will no longer be complicit in genocide. I am about to engage in an extreme act of protest.”


     Despite his explicit declaration, users on social media and news outlets, such as CNN, suggested that his intentions were unclear — despite the fact that he was screaming “Free Palestine” while burning alive. His actions were also minimized to “mental illness” not only by his parents, but also by sites and outlets such as Psychology Today and The New York Post.These justifications present several issues. Notably, they nullify the sacrifice he made by silencing his voice — by omitting the cause and motivation, the impact is reduced. This also tries to reduce the impact by instead encouraging audiences to pity Bushnell and instead disregard the cause he protested for. 


     An article, written by Joe Pierre M.D. on Psychology Today explained self-immolation as being half-protest and half-suicide, listing one of the “key points” as “Self-immolation often reflects as much a desire to end one's life as a desire to protest a cause.” While this may be true in some cases, this pathologization diminishes the genuineness of the protesters by implying that their actions  are always at least semi-motivated by personal interest, rather than wholly to support their causes. The writer concluded the article by saying that “his self-immolation hints at as much of a desire to stop the killing in Gaza as a desire to stop himself from living. As for why exactly, we may never know.” We do know that his intention was explicitly to try and stop the Gaza killings, but there isn’t much information  regarding his mental health. However, from what Bushnell said — “I am an active duty member of the United States Air Force and I will no longer be complicit in genocide,” we can still infer that his “desire to stop himself from living” mostly arose from his previous complicity in the war and a wish to undo that.


     Many are quick to point out the extreme nature of Bushnell's act, further questioning its validity and likening it more so to public suicide. It is then argued that self-immolation as a whole is not a valid form of protest. An article by The Atlantic condemned Bushnell's actions and the act of self-immolation as a form of protest, saying it was disgusting, and summarizing that the video’s only purpose was to disturb viewers, likening it to “dancing and chanting while engulfed in flames.”

Bushnell ended his statement by saying: “compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers, it’s not extreme at all. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal.”


     Self-immolation as a form of political protest has existed for decades, often in response to wars, persecution, dictatorship and tyranny, racism, and corrupt systems, notably of police forces. Bushnell is not the first to use this act in order to shed light on the genocide in Palestine. In early December, an unidentified protester also burned herself (and survived) in a Palestinian flag outside the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta. This, however, did not get as much coverage. The most referenced example dates back to 1963, when Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese monk, set himself alight to protest the corruption of the government.

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