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Dhaka Tribune

The self-immolation of Aaron Bushnell

Setting oneself alight is an age-old act of protest that has, in the past, shed light on some important issues

Update : 02 Mar 2024, 10:57 AM

In a news-heavy world it is easy to overlook events such as the self-immolation of 25-year-old American Aaron Bushnell, who was an airman of the US Air Force stationed at the Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas. Aaron Bushnell was driven to commit an extreme act in protest of Israeli atrocities in Gaza.

On Sunday afternoon, February 25, Bushnell set himself on fire outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC, unable to bear the anguish of the tragedy in Gaza. He placed his smartphone on the ground to livestream his protest, shouting "Free Palestine" as he ignited himself. The extreme act of self-immolation is an act of protest, as it is an act of utter self-sacrifice for a cause. It was an act of exemplary courage, an act of defiance. 

When the deafening silence over the atrocities in Gaza that include attacks on hospitals, refugee camps, and shelter less refugees in their own homeland led one to believe that the world has been shorn off its conscience, Bushnell’s act of self-sacrifice makes us rethink all of that. At least one 25-year-old had a conscience left in him. 

Bushnell was a do-gooder. He delivered food to the needy and regularly took part in protests for just causes. Before lighting himself up in his live stream he said: “I will no longer be complicit in genocide.” “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. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal.” 

Not only was Bushnell driven by the pangs of conscience, he had an analytical and critical mind. He was fully aware of the unconditional support of the US for Israel that’s why he saw him as partly responsible, thus he stated, that he did not want to be “complicit in genocide.”

Bushnell further reflected on the platform Twitch: “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?”

Close friends described him as “one of the most dedicated and principled people” they’d ever known.

Self-immolation in protests is tied with expressing deep convictions and has a long history in and of itself as an act of protest. Individuals have chosen extreme acts to draw attention to protest oppression or injustice. 

There was a notable instance of self-immolation against the Vietnam War on March 16,  1965 when Alice Hertz, an 82-year-old German Jewish immigrant and lifelong peace activist, set herself on fire in Detroit, Michigan to protest the war and “the arms race all over the world.” She was the first US activist to self-immolate in objection to the Vietnam War. While her act did not receive much global attention, it was one of the earliest instances of self-immolation in the United States against the Vietnam war. Her sacrifice, along with others who protested in various ways, contributed to the growing anti-war movement in the U.

One of the first and most widely circulated (even copied) acts of self-immolation in modern history was carried out by Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk during the Vietnam War, who set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963 in protest of the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government backed by the US. 

On December 17, 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old street vendor in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia set himself on fire to protest confiscation of his street-side business and the public humiliation he had to endure. In two weeks’ time he died from his injuries on January 4, 2011. His death helped ignite a wave of protests in Tunisia and then in Egypt, and in other neighbouring countries that came to be known as the Arab Spring. Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation did not go in vain, it served as a catalyst for change.

What is important is not to glorify self-immolation but to shed light on the potential of protests against injustices. 

While self-immolation represents an extreme form of protest, non-lethal forms of engagement, such as legal interventions as the instance of South Africa’s case against Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza at the International Court of Justice. As I followed part of the deliberations in January, I was struck by the arguments of South African advocate and activist, Adila Hassim. She was as persuasive as she was agile.

In the recent proceedings at the International Court of Justice, Egypt’s legal advisor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Yasmine Moussa’s deliberations caught my attention. Moussa has a PhD in international law from Cambridge University. Her deliberations at the ICJ brilliantly juxtaposed the historical context, humanitarian crisis, and the violations of international law by Israel. She combined in her arguments her legal acumen as well as emotional sensibilities. 

Setting aside the opportunism, skepticism, and despair, in a complex way, the self-immolation of Aaron Bushnell and the legal deliberations call on the world’s powers to be held accountable for their complicity and callousness to a mind-numbing humanitarian crisis.



Habibul Haque Khondker is a sociology professor at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi who previously taught at the National University of Singapore.

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