"self-immolation is nothing “compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine”

On Sunday, February 25, 25-year-old active duty member of the United States Air Force Aaron Bushnell set himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy in the US capital of Washington, DC, in a one-airman revolt against the US-backed slaughter currently being perpetrated by the Israeli military in the Gaza Strip.

Over the past 143 days, Israel has killed nearly 30,000 Palestinians in the besieged coastal enclave. In video footage recorded prior to and during his self-immolation, Bushnell states that he will “no longer be complicit in genocide” and that he is “about to engage in an extreme act of protest – but compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonisers is not extreme at all”.

To be sure, Palestinians have long been accustomed to, well, burning to death at the hands of Israeli weaponry, ever since the state of Israel undertook to lethally invent itself on Palestinian land in 1948. The Israeli military’s use of skin-incinerating white phosphorus munitions in more recent years has no doubt contributed to the whole Palestinian “experience”.

After pertinently observing that US complicity in the genocide of Palestinians is “what our ruling class has decided will be normal”, Bushnell plants himself directly in front of the Israeli embassy gate – in full US military fatigues – and proceeds to douse himself with flammable liquid. As he rapidly burns to death, he repeatedly shouts: “Free Palestine”, while security personnel order him to get “on the ground”. One particularly helpful individual points a gun at the blaze.

In the aftermath of Bushnell’s self-immolation, the New York Times announced: “Man Dies After Setting Himself on Fire Outside Israeli Embassy in Washington, Police Say” – a rather strong contender, perhaps, for the most diluted and decontextualised headline ever. One wonders what folks would have said in 1965 had the US newspaper of record run headlines like: “Octogenarian Detroit Woman Dies After Setting Herself on Fire, Police Say – An Event Having Nothing Potentially To Do With Said Woman’s Opposition To The Vietnam War Or Anything Like That”.

Speaking of Vietnam War-related self-immolations, recall renowned US historian and journalist David Halberstam’s account of the 1963 demise in Saigon, South Vietnam, of the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc: “Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly… I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered even to think”.

And while such an intense and passionate form of suicide is no doubt bewildering to many, genocide should be all the more appalling; as Bushnell himself said, self-immolation is nothing “compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine”, where people know all too well how quickly human beings burn.

In Bushnell’s case, the US political-media establishment appears to be doing its best to not only decontextualise but also posthumously discredit him. Time Magazine’s write-up, for example, admonishes that the US “Defence Department policy states that service members on active duty should ‘not engage in partisan political activity’” – as though actively abetting a genocide weren’t politically “partisan”.

Furthermore, the magazine specifies, US military regulations “prohibit wearing the uniform during ‘unofficial public speeches, interviews’”, and other activities.

Perhaps Bushnell’s ashes can be tried in military court.

At the bottom of the Time article, readers are charitably given the following instructions: “If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental-health crisis or contemplating suicide, call or text 988” – which naturally implies that Bushnell was simply the victim of a “mental-health crisis” rather than someone making a most cogent and defiant political point in response to an extremely mentally disturbing political reality.

At the end of the day, anyone who is not experiencing a serious “mental-health crisis” over the genocide going down in Gaza with full US backing can be safely filed under the category of psychologically disturbed.

Of course, the US also perpetrated its very own genocide against Native Americans – another bloody phenomenon that has not been deemed worthy of diagnosis as a severe collective mental disturbance or anything of the sort. As per the official narrative, if you think it’s crazy for the US or its Israeli partner in crime to commit genocide, you’re the crazy one.

Coming from a family of US Air Force veterans myself – both of my grandfathers participated in the carnage in Vietnam – I have personally witnessed the psychological fallout that can attend service as empire’s executioners. Aaron Bushnell was meant to be a cog in the killing machine, but his principles cost him his life.

Indeed, according to a former colleague of Bushnell’s who worked with him to support the homeless community in San Antonio, Texas, he was “one of the most principled comrades I’ve ever known”. And while we journalists are supposed to be the ones speaking truth to power, suffice it to say that Bushnell has put Western corporate media to shame.

Rest in power, Aaron Bushnell.

Belén Fernández for Al Jazeera

One of the main reasons the self-immolation of Aaron Bushnell is having such an earthshaking impact on our society is because it’s the single most profound act of sincerity that any of us have ever witnessed.

In this fraudulent civilization where everything is fake and stupid, we are not accustomed to such sincerity. We’re accustomed to vapid mainstream culture manufactured in New York and Los Angeles, airheaded celebrities who never talk about anything real, self-aggrandizing Instagram activism, synthetic political factions designed to herd populist discontent into support for status quo politics, phony shitlib “I hear you, I stand with you [but I won’t actually do anything]” posturing, endless propaganda and diversion from the mass media and its online equivalents which are algorithmically boosted by Silicon Valley tech plutocrats, and a mind-controlled dystopia where almost everyone is sleepwalking through life in a psyop-induced fog.

That is the sort of experience we have been conditioned to expect here in the shadow of the western empire. And then, out of nowhere, some Air Force guy comes along and does something real. Something as authentic and sincere as anything could possibly be, with the very noblest of intentions.

He live-streamed himself lighting himself on fire and burning to death in order to draw people’s attention to how horrific the US-backed atrocities in Gaza actually are. Knowing full well how painful it would be. Knowing full well he’d either die or survive with horrific burns and wish he’d died. Knowing full well that once he connected the flame with the accelerant he poured onto his body, there’d be no turning back.

He didn’t back down. He didn’t go home and stuff his face with snacks and gossip in the group chat and see what types of mindless escapism are available on Netflix or Pornhub. He lit the flame. He even struggled to light it at first, and he still did.

There’s nothing in our society that can prepare us for that kind of sincerity. That kind of selflessness. That kind of purity of intention. It stops us dead in our tracks, as if the fabric of our world has been ripped asunder. And, in a way, it has.

We’re not really living in the same world we were living in before Aaron Bushnell lit himself on fire at 1 PM on February 25th. It was far too sincere an act, committed in the least sincere city on this planet. It shook things around far too much for all the pieces to fit fully back into place.

I myself am permanently changed. I find myself reapproaching the Gaza genocide with fresh eyes, renewed vigor, and invincible determination. I now write with a different kind of fire in my guts.

And looking around I can see it’s much the same for others. Where previously we’d begun seeing the opposition to the incineration of Gaza beginning to lose a bit of energy due to despair and how hard it is to keep something energized for months on end, we are now seeing electrifying enthusiasm. 

More importantly, this is shaking things up in mainstream society and not just within the pro-Palestine crowd. We’re seeing Bushnell’s final words about the US empire’s complicity with genocide shared on mainstream networks like CNN and ABC, while Israel apologists run around falling all over themselves trying to tell people nobody cares about what Bushnell did like a guy sending a woman dozens of texts saying he’s totally unbothered that she rejected his advances. A member of the US military lighting himself on fire while screaming “Free Palestine” is absolutely devastating to the information interests of Israel and the United States, because it shakes people awake like nothing else ever could.

All around our fake plastic dystopia people are now opening their eyes, saying “Wait, huh? That man did what? Why? I thought nothing matters but my comfort and my feelings and my small circle of people I care about? My country is complicit in a what now? Is it possible I’ve been missing something important?”

With his profound act of sincerity, Aaron Bushnell extended the world an invitation to a very different way of looking at life. An invitation to pierce through the veil of superficiality and narcissism to a radical authenticity and a deep compassion for our fellow human beings. To a profound sincerity of our own, with which we can shake the world awake in our own unique ways.

At 1 PM on February 25th, Aaron Bushnell lit more than one kind of fire. A fire that drives us to act. A fire that lights the way. A fire that inspires us. A fire that shows us another way of being. A fire which shows us a better world is possible. 

We won’t forget his message. We couldn’t if we tried.  Caitlin Johnstone

From Caitlin Johnstone regarding Aarron Bushnell's supreme sacrifice on the alter of the genocidal Israelis:

Currently there has been a famine going on for months in a place that is half children, which means that in the coming days we can expect a massive explosion of children dying due to starvation. And here’s the kicker: the famine is 100 percent deliberate.

I never thought I’d ever see anything worse than babies being ripped apart by military explosives until I started seeing babies being starved. Babies killed with bombs is horrifying, but starving babies causes PANIC. It triggers a deep, primal THIS NEEDS TO STOP instinct.

Aaron Bushnell wasn’t addressing the Israeli government with his soul-jarring message. He wasn’t even addressing his own government. He was addressing you. Each of us. His goal was to get us all to open our eyes to the horror of what’s happening, and spur us to action to end it.

If you’ve noticed Israel apologist trolls swarming all over the Aaron Bushnell story, it’s because they know how damaging a US airman self-immolating while screaming “Free Palestine” is to US and Israeli information interests, and they’re scrambling to manipulate the narrative.

Israel apologists are all over the internet swarming the comments of anyone discussing Aaron Bushnell going “No one cares! He died for nothing! He didn’t accomplish anything!” Bitch if he didn’t accomplish anything you wouldn’t be here in my notifications frantically telling me he didn’t accomplish anything.

Who do these losers think they’re kidding? The very fact that they need to do this proves them wrong. They’re like a guy who spends hours sending a woman dozens of texts about how he totally doesn’t care that she rejected his advances. Methinks the Israel apologist doth protest too much.

Many high-profile Israel supporters have been circulating a fake screenshot of a Reddit account run by Bushnell saying “Palestine will be free when all the jews are dead.” The fact that they’re doing this illustrates two things: that Israel supporters are unscrupulous liars, and that they are freaking the fuck out about how much damage Bushnell has done to their cause.

Israel supporters keep confidently opining on Aaron Bushnell’s motives and character as though they are even remotely capable of understanding such a person. These weak, shallow, self-centered little bitches can’t even lay siege to Gaza without bringing along cotton candy machines and bouncy castles.

He did it. Aaron Bushnell forced this to happen. He did something so jarring and impactful that the mass media would be forced to report the raw facts about it if they want to avoid internal conflict like CNN and NYT have been experiencing in recent weeks. He left them no choice. https://t.co/a05YrC5vpO

— Caitlin Johnstone (@caitoz) February 26, 2024

Liberals: We support the fight for civil rights! 

Palestine supporters: *boycott* 

Liberals: No not like that. 

Palestine supporters: *protest* 

Liberals: No not like that. 

Palestinians: *violent resistance* 

Liberals: No not like that.

Aaron Bushnell: *sets self on fire* 

Liberals: No not like that.

US liberals in 2016: Wanting universal healthcare is a pie in the sky fantasy

US liberals in 2020: Wanting full student loan debt forgiveness is a pie in the sky fantasy 

US liberals in 2024: Wanting your country not to commit genocide is a pie in the sky fantasy

If the United States really was the defender of justice it purports to be and actually used its military in the way it claims to, it would have told Israel to cease its genocidal atrocities in Gaza and taken military action if Israel refused. Instead, it’s actively running support for Israel’s atrocities.

This shows you what the US empire really is, and what it has always been. This shows you that its “humanitarian interventions” have never actually had humanitarian goals. It shows you that every time the US has attacked a foreign nation under the narrative cover of freeing its people from its tyrannical government was in fact an act of mass military violence based on lies.

There’s nothing stopping the US from moving its war machinery to the immediate surroundings of Israel and threatening to destroy IDF locations if it doesn’t cease its massacres, in the same way Hugh Thompson and his helicopter crew rightly stopped the My Lai massacre by threatening to fire on US troops in Vietnam. That hasn’t happened because the US isn’t what it pretends to be, and does not use its military in the way it claims to.

In reality, the US is the hub of a globe-spanning power structure that requires endless violence to maintain its hegemony, and what we’re seeing in Gaza is just one more expression of that violence. This isn’t some fluke aberration in the US empire’s behavior but a very normal and expected manifestation of it. The facts clash with the United States’ story about itself because the story is a lie.