I cannot stop thinking about Aaron Bushnell.

On Sunday, Aaron walked toward the Israeli embassy while livestreaming himself, speaking firmly and with conviction: “I am an active-duty member of the United States Air Force, and 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.”

He then set himself on fire, screaming “Free Palestine” until he collapsed and later died from his injuries.

Aaron was a member of the US military, who are currently funding and participating in the genocide of the Palestinian people. Aaron knew that intimately, and he could no longer sit with this complicity. The military speaks to the language of sacrifice; Aaron knew that if he were to die in uniform while assisting Israel in bombing Palestine, he would be celebrated as a hero, but to sacrifice himself in uniform in an effort to stop the madness of the US military would flip the script, demanding a reconciling of violence. Why is state-sponsored destruction given absolute legitimacy while forms of protest (violent or non-violent) are consistently delegitimatized? 

I’m sure Aaron also understood that his motives—though clearly stated—would be distorted in an attempt to give any other reason for his actions than that of a rejection of empire. Not only have mass media outlets limited coverage of Aaron, but they also successfully erased the story of a woman in Atlanta who self-immolated in December. Empire will do whatever possible to limit dissent.

I want to briefly mention too that the narratives emerging that attempt to create excuses for Aaron’s position often include a signaling of mental illness. As someone who has been watching the horrific acts of genocide, I empathize with Aaron’s desperate cry for someone, anyone, to listen and to witness the moral rot of imperial rule. His is a human response in the face of dehumanization. At the same time, we should be careful with the tendency to write off someone’s actions as corresponding to mental illness since this implies that those who live with mental illness are incapable of taking a moral stand or having principles to uphold.

The absurdity of the empire was even further confirmed in the moment that Aaron stood defiantly in protest. While responders rushed toward Aaron with fire extinguishers, a US Secret Service officer stood with his gun drawn at Aaron while the flames engulfed his body. Someone on the scene yelled, “I don’t need guns, I need fire extinguishers!” 

Aaron knew deeply the message he wanted to convey but he could never have known that empire would hunt him until his final moments before he could expose their immorality. Or maybe he did. 

Rest in power Aaron Bushnell.

Picture of Hannah Redekop

Hannah Redekop

CPT Communications Associate

Send Hannah a note: peacemakers@cpt.org

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