Aaron Bushnell: An Inimitable Martyr

Aaron Bushnell1 1
Aaron Bushnell moments before lighting himself on fire to protest the genocide in Gaza.

On this past Sunday, 25th February, as most of us carried on with our mundane weekend, Aaron Bushnell, a senior airman in the United States Air Force walked up to the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC and set himself ablaze while livestreaming his extreme act of protest against the ongoing genocide in Gaza. His final words were “Free Palestine”, a phrase that embodies the sentiment of millions of people in the world that have been protesting against the horrific genocide being perpetrated by Israel. He was barely 25, that makes him part of Gen-Z, a generation often criticized as insular and apathetic to the world around them but in reality seem to be well-informed and playing a pivotal role in protest movements not only now but also in similar instances such as the George Floyd lynching in 2020. Even Subhkaran Singh, the 21-year old farmer that was killed in the police firing incident on February 14th as part of the ongoing massive Farmers protest in India is a Gen-Z individual.

Aaron Bushnell’s self-immolation has parallels in the history of protest movements. In 1963, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc lit himself on fire in Saigon in a mark of protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government backed by US occupation forces. His act remains etched in the collective memory of the world and is considered as a pivotal movement that eventually led to the downfall of US-backed President of South Vitenam, Ngo Dinh Diem in the same year. Thich Quang Duc was in his 60s at the time of the event. More recently, in 2010, a 26-year old street vendor Tarek El-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia in response to repeated humiliation and harassment by municipal officials that confiscated his belongings. His death eventually became a catalyst for massive protests against the autocratic government of Tunisia leading to what is known as the Arab Spring movement that then spread to several other countries in the Middle East region and subsequent toppling of regimes. A protester also self-immolated in Atlanta in December 2023 outside the Israeli consulate in support of Palestine. These stark incidents speak of unimaginable desperation and helplessness that drive them towards such acts. Their impact on world history is self-evident. It is tragic that we claim to live in a “modern” world but yet individuals are driven towards sacrificial pyres in an effort to jolt the collective conscience of genocidal and dictatorial regimes well in to the 21st century.

Aaron Bushnell’s case is yet unique as he is geographically distant from the scene of genocidal horror in Gaza and ethnically removed from the persecuted Palestinians. That shows that he has a heart of gold and compassion that is perhaps rare in human beings. In his last message to the world, he expressly stated that he did not want to be “complicit in genocide” and indicted the ruling class for “normalizing” a genocide. His humility was writ large when he said “compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers”, his act was “not extreme at all”. His death is the world’s loss. It is clear that as a US serviceman, he became disillusioned with the stated objectives of military force. He was able to see through the lies and deceit of Western support to Israel’s genocidal onslaught in Gaza while claiming to work towards reconciliation. Aaron was working in the US Air Force’s 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) wing and some reports claim that he had classified information about US troops being directly involved in killings in Gaza tunnels. If true, this would be contrary to public claims by US government officials that there is no direct involvement in Gaza. It would also be a revelation akin to what Chelsea Manning unearthed in 2010 with regards to US excesses during the Iraq invasion. Regardless of this aspect, it is abundantly clear that Israel is able to carry on its brazen destruction of Gaza and death rampage only with the avowed support of Western world, specifically the USA. Multiple UN resolutions explicitly asking for a humanitarian ceasefire have now been vetoed by the USA. Billions of dollars and countless armamentaria keep flowing to Israel from the USA and its blood-thirsty allies to keep feeding the insatiable hunger for mayhem.

One can earnestly hope that Aaron Bushnell’s martyrdom will not be in vain as the Israeli genocidal juggernaut rolls on unabated. As of today, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are on the brink of starvation as Israeli forces are actively bombing even those in refugee camps and hospitals. Visuals of desperate Palestinians scrambling to catch food and relief supplies being air-dropped along the beach in Deir al Balah are heartbreaking. To date, it is estimated that more than 10,000 children were slaughtered among the ~30,000 Palestinians killed. Aaron’s death would hopefully shake the namesake US two-party oligarchy from its self-imposed slumber and force them to stop supporting a 21st century genocide. His sacrificial self-immolation has the power to become a watershed movement in history but only time will tell if there is truly a virtue called ‘humanity’ that can end this misery or if that is just a myth!

G Naveen has been writing articles pertaining to politics with emphasis on social Justice for more than 20 years on various platforms. He is a physician by profession. 

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