People place flowers in front of photos at a vigil for U.S. Airman Aaron Bushnell at the U.S. Army Recruiting Office in Times Square, New York City, on Feb. 27, 2024. Bushnell died after setting himself on fire outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, Feb. 25. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images) 

There’s Nothing to Admire in Aaron Bushnell’s Gruesome Self-Immolation

On Feb 25, Aaron Bushnell, 25, an active-duty member of the U.S. Air Force, livestreamed himself in the act of setting himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. He had already alerted several leftist media of his intention. Before dousing himself with accelerant, he stated to observers that he could “no longer be complicit in genocide,” referring to Israel’s retaliatory war against Hamas for their Oct. 7 proto-genocide in southern Israel.
Two opposing schools of commentary immediately sprang up to explain—depending on one’s point of view—Bushnell’s suicide or self-sacrifice.

Conservative writers put Bushnell’s act down to extreme far-left views exacerbated by his upbringing in a strict religious sect (with insalubrious ties to Canada) that “controlled, intimidated and humiliated” students.
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Progressives tended more to reverence for the young man’s idealism and moral passion. Typical of the latter, The Guardian’s Owen Jones (who had previously cast doubt on whether Hamas terrorists raped women and intentionally killed children during their attack on Israel) posted online that Bushnell died “because he had too much humanity for a world run by people who don’t have any.”
That Bushnell held extreme political views is not in doubt. On Reddit weeks before his death, he posted: “Israel is a white supremacist, ethnonationalist, settler-colonial apartheid state… it has no right to exist.” Shortly after the pogrom, he had posted: “Can you or I really say that Indigenous people are wrong for retaliating against colonizers who are rubbing their domination in their face?”

Some prominent Israel haters and outright anti-Semites seized on Bushnell’s self-immolation with barely suppressed glee at its political utility. Anti-Semitic rock artist Roger Waters (who dressed as an SS officer onstage in Germany (!)) described Bushnell as an “all American hero”; he posted a video of Bushnell killing himself as the Pink Floyd song “The Gunners Dream” played in the background. Hamas issued a pious press statement expressing “our deep condolences and our full solidarity with the family and friends of the American pilot Aaron Bushnell, whose name has been immortalized as a defender of human values and the oppression of the Palestinian people.”
Atlantic writer Graeme Wood, an expert on triumphalist Islam, described these opportunists’ instinct for political weaponization of a horrific death as “deeply sick.” The tactic is “contagious,” he wrote, alluding to another man who self-immolated in December outside the Israeli consulate in Atlanta, so interpreting Bushnell’s suicide as heroism “risks compounding this tragedy for no good reason.”
Self-immolation as a form of political protest has a long history in other parts of the world, but a negligible one here. In the West we are more familiar with civil disobedience, marches, sit-ins and other non-violent forms of protest, including hunger strikes, which occasionally end in death, mercifully offstage. These protests are organized and collaborative, with a view to rallying popular support for change, allowing those in power to “read the room” and alter course—or not—as they calculate the cost/benefit of submission to demands. Even hunger strikers hope their tactic will act as leverage for enough success to preclude actual death.

But in some regions of the East, self-immolation—a uniquely horrific, solitary death with no guarantee of any political impact—is more common, although killing oneself goes deeply against Eastern religious teachings.

Oxford sociologist Michael Biggs published a comprehensive survey of self-immolation as political protest between 1963 and 2002, based on 533 individual acts, including non-fatal attempts. Biggs estimates that there were between 800 and 3,000 individual acts of self-immolation in the four decades under review.
He chose 1963 as his start date because it was then that Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc, the progenitor of the act as political protest, set himself on fire to protest Ngo Dinh Diem’s government. Quang Duc’s death got tremendous publicity and plausibly set in motion the decline and fall of Diem’s government within months. Within a few years, dozens more protesters followed suit, many targeting the United States and arousing sympathy for the self-immolators amongst myriad anti-Vietnam war Americans.

Count me among those who don’t see any value in self-immolation as protest. I understand risking one’s life in battle or to save the life of another. I understand choosing principled conduct that may lead to execution by a tyrannical regime. But I can find nothing to admire in Aaron Bushnell’s gruesome suicide.

Suspicion of his mental competence to assess the rationale for his deed immediately set in upon learning that Bushnell erroneously believed, according to one of his friends, that “we have troops in those tunnels, that it’s U.S. soldiers participating in the killings.” The only U.S. military personnel in Israel are there to identify American hostages.
Additionally, there was the narrow selectivity of his anguish. Just days ago, a report to the U.N. Security Council revealed the brutality of the Arab-dominated Rapid Support Forces against Africans in Darfur: widespread ethnic killings and rapes that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. There are many other examples of Muslim-on-Muslim savagery that have not prompted self-immolations in the West.
On the issue of double standards—the soft bigotry of low expectations from Muslims, the hard bigotry of impossible standards for Jews—Wood pointed to an irony that won’t have escaped those in the pro-Israel political camp. The war in Gaza, he wrote, “began when Hamas terrorists burned Israelis alive…[Bushnell’s] willingness to suffer this way certainly demonstrated his ‘determination and sincerity’, to use Nhat Hanh’s phrase. It also showed his numbness to the suffering of others: His cinders should inspire action, but the much larger piles of cinders of whole families in the Kfar Aza kibbutz somehow should not.”

One section of Biggs’s survey is devoted to the question of “why.” The sociologue found that two motivations predominate: “appealing to bystanders” and “inciting sympathizers.” Bushnell’s suicide can be said to have been successful on both counts.

But this survey was undertaken before social media became young people’s chief source of “news” and their preferred medium for self-presentation. I cannot help wondering if, amongst Aaron Bushnell’s final thoughts before dying for a cause in which, let’s not forget, he had no personal stake, were visions of a million “likes” and even more reposts, accompanied by the comment “#AaronBushnell stunning and brave.”