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Why Did Aaron Bushnell Burn?

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 27: A person holds a sign during a vigil for U.S. Airman Aaron Bushnell at the US Army Recruiting Office in Times Square on February 27, 2024 in New York City. Bushnell died after setting himself on fire outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, DC on Sunday. In a video that was posted to a social media account showing the act, he stated that would “no longer be complicit in genocide," before pouring an unknown liquid over himself and igniting it while yelling “Free Palestine” repeatedly. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images|

A vigil for Aaron Bushnell in Times Square.

The most famous act of self-immolation is now a piece of pop culture in the United States. The minority Catholic regime that John F. Kennedy (now deceased; survived in political life by a nephew suffering from wet brain) was arming in Vietnam had been persecuting the Buddhist majority. The Mahayana tradition was born of protest and refutation, and resistance to the ongoing cultural and material genocide inflicted by the Ngô Đình Diệm regime was infamously transmitted around the globe in one photograph. Thích Quảng Đức set himself on fire, an American won an award for snapping the photo, and Kennedy had to reconsider his support for Diệm’s rule. 

The monk achieved fame all over again nearly 30 years later when the photo graced the cover of Rage Against the Machine’s debut album, which went on to sell millions of copies. The long tail of history says that it’s possible that communist rap-rock will have the revolutionary impact it once intended; for now results are mixed. Capitalism has a tendency to water these things down for the market.

Removed from its context, self-immolation is spectacle. The cognitive dissonance of seeing something so atrocious yet so flagrantly out of place in even the most extreme of human behaviors. Suicide is one thing, but to choose to engulf oneself in flame requires a level of conviction that human beings universally recognize as one worthy of paying attention to, as difficult to stomach as it is. The theology around self-immolation is complicated given that suicide is just as reviled in most Buddhist traditions as it is in Abrahamic religions, but in some Mahayana schools violence against the self is the only acceptable form of violent protest.

On Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024, at 12:58 in the afternoon, a 25-year-old active service member in the United States Air Force named Aaron Bushnell set himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. Bushnell yelled “Free Palestine” as the flames traveled up his pant leg and wrapped around his torso. He yelled it a few more times before the flames swallowed enough of his body that Bushnell went quiet, still pacing around as shreds of his clothing, now smoldering ash, floated to the ground. His pacing turned to erratic stomps as his bodily functions failed, and Bushnell collapsed. Off-camera, a police officer yelled at Bushnell to get on the ground, leaning on procedural reflex as a means of pretending to control the funeral pyre on the sidewalk.

The act has already inspired more discussion than the last high-profile self-immolation protest on American soil—a climate activist named Wynn Bruce set himself on fire on Earth Day 2022 to draw attention to climate inaction, which worked for six hours or so on the day he did it. Technically speaking, Bushnell was the second American to self-immolate over Palestine, but the woman who killed herself in December wasn’t immediately identified and didn’t do the deed in front of cameras, denying the media a neat narrative package. Bushnell’s protest has already received coverage from CNN and other mainstream media sources. It’s an accomplishment that a protest for ending the genocide in Gaza has received sympathetic coverage even from generally pro-Israel outlets. A good man who made a shocking decision, is how he’s been portrayed. Perhaps people will care more now that an American committed suicide, but having watched the video and read his statements, it seems likely that Bushnell would only consider the protest successful if the slaughter of Gazans and the occupation of the West Bank both came to an end. 

His background is what makes Bushnell’s self-immolation so fascinating to the faithful and so perplexing to the rationalist. Self-immolation is a tactic utilized to protest minority rule. It is an eternal scream. Thích Quảng Đức was not just protesting the social and political conditions in Vietnam, but was specifically protesting the fact that the social and political conditions were being implemented by an imperialist ethno-religious minority. Despite making up a majority of the country, the Buddhists of Vietnam had no state power or credible path to liberation from their oppressive government. Quảng Đức was quite clearly living under minority rule: a force from outside of Vietnam was making Vietnamese people change their ways of life and customs, under threat of violence. Bushnell, on the other hand, died a straight white Christian man in good standing with the United States government who was patriotic enough to join its armed forces. So why is it then that a representative member of the majority in the world’s freest liberal democracy™ would feel as though the only avenue for his message was the most extreme form of protest in existence, a cry that is usually reserved only for the voiceless?

This year there will be many narratives about control in America. It’s an election year, after all. If Americans choose incorrectly, all hell could break loose. That might be true, but having lived through multiple elections, there is a boy-crying-wolf quality to it. A sort of stage management to keep voters focused on the aspects of the election that are nominally within their control. None of the candidates are likely to promise an end to selling drones to psychopaths, for example, but might instead focus on things like immigration or women’s health. However, regardless of the promises made, once the election ends the accountability ends with it. Security councils will form. Special committees made up of members of the two-party establishment will make the decisions about which foreigners get blown up in the name of American interests. Promises will be broken and voters will be asked to have faith that circumstances will be different the next cycle. Regardless of the realignment of domestic political priorities, only rubes believe they’ll be actually voting on policy toward Israel, or Ukraine, or Somalia, or Yemen, or Pakistan. American voters will not be allowed to say whether or not the stock market should be buoyed by defense contractors who make a mint off of atomized flesh. American voters will not be allowed to tell their representatives that American foreign policy should stop targeting Muslim countries with extreme prejudice. All these decisions have already been made, without your input.

Ideally, America could produce a presidential candidate and enough congressional candidates that voters would be able to stop these extremely unpopular things from happening. The vast majority of Americans support a ceasefire in Palestine, for example, and if American media would bother covering what was happening in the Horn of Africa, the sentiment would almost certainly be similar. But that majority does not have a real voice, and the minority of people who want these atrocities to keep happening in their name will get their way, because Aaron Bushnell’s America exists under minority rule: generally that of the white and the wealthy and the mainline or the evangelical. 

It’s important to note that Bushnell was not raised as a mainliner, nor was he an evangelical. His upbringing was in a Christian cult from Massachusetts known as the Community of Jesus. Essentially, it’s an extremely strict monastic community with dogmatic adherence to scripture and the Rule of St. Benedict. Bushnell had left the community but was reportedly spending time volunteering with a socialist organization giving food to the poor on the street. He seems to have internalized the aspects of the Christ story that even staunch antitheists can’t argue with, while leaving the punitive or vindictive theology behind. The delta between what Christ wanted for humanity and what society actually looks like was not rationalized or intellectualized into obscure nonsense; it was acted upon. Who knows what the Buddha or the Mahakala was saying to Thích Quảng Đức before he lit the match, but while one can imagine that the dialect was different, the meaning couldn’t have been far off. 

In his final Facebook message, Bushnell 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.” That’s probably truer for people who decide to sign up for the Air Force than it is for average voters, but the sentiment is valid. When tasked with trying to determine the right thing to do amidst ongoing genocide, Bushnell decided to set himself on fire in the hope that Gaza could maybe find peace in a world that he would never live to see. Any divine judgment might depend on whether his memory is a blessing or a curse, which would seem to depend on whether America can sustain itself on something other than violence for once.

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