Self-immolation headlines distract from the cause

Aaron Bushnell’s death is simply a sad chapter in something much bigger than one man.

Bushnell died after an act of self-immolation outside the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C. last week. The 25-year old U.S. Air Force serviceman took his own life by setting himself on fire in protest of the United States’ support for Israel in the Israel-Hamas War.

The airman had planned to take his own life in advance, writing a will which instructed that his savings be donated to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. After drenching himself in flammable liquid and carrying out the act, Bushnell shouted in support of Palestine while a police officer held a gun to him.

Bushnell’s death has sparked a tide of discussion and discourse. Some are labeling him a hero, while others condemn his act of protest and describe him as mentally ill. The situation brings to light a heavy discussion regarding whether Bushnell’s act should be celebrated as a grand act of martyrdom or seen as an extreme measure that shouldn’t be praised or glorified.

Bushnell’s choice to take his own life in protest, whether people like it or not, brings more awareness to his cause.

There are many complex facets of the situation. First, we need to use history as a precedent to fully understand the act of self-immolation and its effects. The act has long been seen as one of the most extreme forms of protest and has been carried out by many individuals throughout history. Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, famously engaged in this act during the Vietnam War in 1963 to protest the oppression of Buddhists during the Ngo Dinh Diem regime in South Vietnam. Activist Wynn Bruce also carried out the act in Washington, D.C. in 2022 to protest the climate crisis.

A woman whose identity has not yet been released even performed this protest just a few months ago, also in opposition to the United States’ support for Israel. Bushnell’s self-immolation is perhaps the most headline-grabbing occurrence of this act in recent memory. Regarding these headlines, however, is where I take the most issue in the situation.

Media coverage of the situation, in my opinion, has been extremely poor. Before one can even begin to discuss the morality and ethics of how we view Bushnell’s act, its reporting has to be honest and must not shy away from discussing the full scope of the issue. Bushnell, very explicitly in fact, carried out this act in protest of the United States’ support for Israel. Despite this, countless publications have left this detail out in headlines or have danced around Bushnell’s cause.

When thinking about the act of self-immolation itself, it’s complicated. I firmly agree that extreme forms of protest such as these shouldn’t be encouraged, and I believe there’s an argument to be made that the glorification of self-immolation is excessive. However, when one puts Bushnell’s act in a broader context, the serviceman’s act will surely be remembered in history for what it is — a choice to sacrifice himself for the sake of awareness.

I believe it does a disservice to Bushnell to have discourse regarding his final act dominate news headlines and social media spaces. Whether or not people agree with the self-immolation itself, I would argue that the best thing we can do is continue to discuss the cause he was fighting for. Bushnell’s death is one compared to 30,000 dead Palestinians, the vast majority of them being innocent civilians.

Bushnell’s choice to take his own life in protest, whether people like it or not, brings more awareness to his cause. The key takeaway from the situation remains, however, that the serviceman had a choice whether to live or to die — a choice that tens of thousands of dead Palestinians did not have.


Featured photo courtesy of Martin Falbisoner, Wikimedia