Message and Method: The Extreme Bravery of Aaron Bushnell’s Self-Immolation

Karl H Christ
4 min readMar 4, 2024

Suicide is an act of bravery. It is incredibly difficult and painful, physically, mentally, and emotionally, to kill oneself. Those who choose suicide often do so because the difficulty and pain of living is greater. But that’s not what we saw in the case of Aaron Bushnell this past week. Bushnell took his own life, but it was not suicide. When the 25 year old active duty service-man of the US Air Force doused himself in flammable liquid and set himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy, he wasn’t doing so because of mental illness or internal trauma, so far as any evidence has been presented to show. He was sacrificing himself as a demonstration, as an extreme act of protest, in opposition to an ongoing act of criminal evil, in support of a cause he believed in. What he did was an act of extreme bravery.

If we were in a different place and time, I wonder if this would be a bigger story. It’s being discussed, sure, but only a handful of media outlets are giving it the attention and depth I believe it warrants. A man, serving in our military, torched himself to death, in protest of our country’s support of an active genocide. Only in a culture so inured to violence, bereft of conscience, and woefully wilfully ignorant does something like this happen and all but blow over after a few days. The story and its significance have been minimized by omission or actively distorted.

It should be unacceptable to disparage Bushnell’s act of sacrifice or belittle it as the action of a mentally ill young man. People have, of course, done just that. Whenever there’s a death in service of, or as a result of, a cause, those who disagree with the cause will do all they can to poke holes in the character and history of the person in order to dismiss their message. Neofascist Tom Cotton has tried to spin the story into a question of why Aaron Bushnell was “allowed to serve” in the military, implied that he was an “extremist” (code for terrorist), claimed that Bushnell “obviously harbored extreme, anti-American views,” and disingenuously claimed that the demonstration was “an act of horrific violence — in support of a terrorist group.” The irony is that Bushnell did not apparently enter military service with a critical view of the US or its military; he came to that position while in that role. By working in the US military and seeing firsthand how it operates, he became disillusioned, developing a more informed worldview, and resorting to an extreme action as a result. If he hadn’t served, it’s possible that he wouldn’t have come to the views or taken the action that he did.

Bushnell was no terrorist; he didn’t act violently, and he said nothing in support of any terrorist group. While extreme, Bushnell’s demonstration did not and was not intended to harm anybody other than himself, and it was intended to be in service of the civilian population under siege and under threat of extermination in Gaza. It’s absurd that self-immolation could be treated as a threatening or hostile act to others. It’s absurd that one of the law enforcement officials on the scene, instead of trying to extinguish the fire engulfing Bushnell, like other officers were trying to do, spent the whole time pointing a gun at him. It’s very telling of how some members of law enforcement view their role, as one-dimensional violent enforcers, or executioners, and the dearth of their ability for rational thinking, that this guy’s instinct was to point a gun at a man on fire. It’s also quite telling that Cotton equates being anti-genocide with being “anti-American.” Perverse as his perspective is, however, it is unfortunately not inaccurate, just uncouth to state so plainly.

Whatever one might think of Aaron Bushnell’s moral and political beliefs and the method he used to express them, no one should deny that self-immolation is an extremely brave act. Can you imagine setting yourself on fire for any cause that you believe in, for anything? I can’t. I wouldn’t. I’m not that brave. I also don’t think that my sacrifice would have the desired effect, i.e. enough of an effect that I would value the outcome more than I do my own life. But I suppose I’m selfish in that regard, and nowhere near as brave as Aaron Bushnell. While I don’t know that his sacrifice will have the desired effect, of helping to end US support for Israel’s genocide against the Palestinian people, and am honestly too cynical to believe that it will, I am in awe of his bravery.