"I will no longer be complicit in genocide. Free Palestine!"

US Airman Aaron Bushnell's last words as he set himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy in Washington have become a lightning rod for civil society calling for a ceasefire

US active duty Airman Aaron Bushnell's profound act of self-immolation has become an icon validating pro-Palestine civil society movements globally (photo: @REVMAXXING/X)
US active duty Airman Aaron Bushnell's profound act of self-immolation has become an icon validating pro-Palestine civil society movements globally (photo: @REVMAXXING/X)

NH Political Bureau

Pro-Palestine civic society members are sitting in vigil across the United States today, 27 February, starting with Washington DC—where 25-year-old Aaron Bushnell, an active-duty member of the United States Air Force, set himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy on 25 February, in protest against US involvement in Israel's war on Palestine.

The young man, in obvious agony in the video he filmed of his self-immolation, continued to shout "Free Palestine! Free Palestine!" until he collapsed. His last words before lighting himself up were: "I will no longer be complicit in genocide."

In one of the vigils in Bushnell's honour and in solidarity with his cause, a fellow Armed Forces member — so it seemed by her uniform — was seen holding a 'Ceasefire Now' card as she wiped her eyes.

Another member of the Armed Forces, per her uniform, joins the viigil in honour of Aaron Bushnell and upholds his cause: 'Ceasefire Now' (photo courtesy @Lau_Bast/X)
Another member of the Armed Forces, per her uniform, joins the viigil in honour of Aaron Bushnell and upholds his cause: 'Ceasefire Now' (photo courtesy @Lau_Bast/X)

In another, outside San Francisco's Israeli consulate, those holding vigil have repeated in chalk Bushnell's his last post on Facebook, in which he wrote, "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."

The post was made on the night of 25 February. It is apparent, his action was not one of haste or a momentary mental health struggle (as has been invoked by certain critics), but of considered forethought and a deep evaluation of personal politics as a civic duty—or as one netizen put it, "a sane man in an insane world".

The statement he made as he set himself on fire was one he had emailed in advance to various activist groups and media outlets, including the BBC:

I’m 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.
Aaron Bushnell, (late) US active-duty airman

Per his LinkedIn page, Bushnell had once hoped to “transition out of the US Air Force into software engineering” — and now felt he had a greater, better calling.

Israel's attack on Gaza has been relentless, with only a brief pause for hostage exchange, since it began its mission to eradicate Hamas for its 7 October attack.

What exactly happened?

As Al Jazeera reports, on Sunday, 25 February, Aaron Bushnell—dressed in full military uniform, in broad daylight—calmly walked towards the premises of the Israeli embassy and recorded himself speaking out the same statement he had emailed.

Bushnell then doused himself with a flammable liquid and ignited it while shouting "Free Palestine!"

As per a BBC report, the incident occurred around 1 p.m. in north-west Washington, with Secret Service officers rushing over. At first they trained their guns on him, and called for him to lie down—whether in surrender or to extinguish the flames remains unclear, but a firefighter is heard saying in exasperated tones on the live video "I don't need guns, I need fire extinguishers!".

When they managed to put the fire out, Bushnell was finally moved to a local hospital.

Despite efforts to save him, Bushnell succumbed to his injuries on 26 February, sparking a thorough investigation by local police, the Secret Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the report added.

Bushnell's profound act of self-immolation was captured on video and aired live on streaming site Twitch, wherein he expressed his refusal to be complicit in what he termed "genocide" against the Palestinian people.

Even the usually circumspect CNN and the New York Times—which have been widely pilloried for their euphemisms on the subject of the situation in Gaza and Israel's relationship with Palestine and Palestinians—made note of the incident, which clearly could not be ignored.

That the Air Force confirmed Bushnell's identity and revealed his role as a cyber defense operations specialist assigned to the 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Wing, and that he was on active duty until his death lent particular power to his act of protest— given that the US has been sending military aid and arms to Israel and supported its 'right to defend itself, repeatedly vetoing global sanctions against it in the UN.

For an active duty member of the armed forces to protest against its diplomatic stance carries a certain extra weight, certainly.

Col. Celina Noyes, commander of the 70th ISR Wing, extended condolences to Bushnell's family and emphasised the need for privacy during this difficult time.

How did the world react?

Bushnell's poignant words underscored the desperation and anguish felt by many witnessing the humanitarian crisis unfold in Gaza.

His selfless act reignited discussions about the ongoing conflict and forced the media to report about it. CNN, in its coverage, refrained from showing the video itself, but read out his last words—even as the general Western media's coverage remained as sanitised as possible, much as it has been for the coverage of Gaza, and filled with euphemisms.

The New York Times and Reuters took note of it, yes, as did the Washington Post and CNN, but NYT did not even acknowledge his status as an active-duty Airman and all elided the reason for his self-immolation—as if it were a treason to even speak of it, of 'Gaza' and 'genocide' together, or even a pro-Palestine sentiment from the lips of an American serving in the most patriotic capacity, in its Armed Forces.

Aaron Bushnell's use of self-immolation as a form of dissent forced the world to not only acknowledge the urgent need for a peaceful resolution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also compelled the attention of the mainstream media on the intensity of emotions surrounding conflict.

Meanwhile, the Israeli embassy read his act as one of anti-Israel 'hate and incitement', commending instead the city and nation's first responders and security forces as a counterpoint to Bushnell's perspective. Their statement noted the "sanctity of life is our highest value", leaving many aghast at the irony:

We are saddened to learn of the self-immolation at the entrance to the office building. It is tragic to see the hate and incitement toward Israel expressed in such a horrific way. The sanctity of life is our highest value. Our prayers are with the security officer who was injured while trying to prevent this tragic act. We are grateful to the city of Atlanta's law enforcement and first responders for all they do to ensure safety.

As global leadership seems at sea with the situation in West Asia, Aaron Bushnell's sacrifice serves as a poignant reminder of the human toll of conflict (as per Al Jazeera, over the past 143 days, Israel has killed nearly 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza) and the desperate calls for justice and freedom in the besieged enclave.

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