The Grim Final Words Of Aaron Bushnell, The Airman Who Self-Immolated

Aaron Bushnell, wearing a U.S. Air Force combat uniform, turned on his phone and began a livestream on Twitch. "My name is Aaron Bushnell," he said into the phone's camera as he walked toward the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C. (via YouTube). "I'm an active duty member of the United States Air Force. And I will no longer be complicit in genocide." He kept walking. In his hand was an open stainless steel water bottle. "I'm 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."

A few seconds later, he doused himself with the liquid from the bottle and set himself on fire. As the flames consumed him, Bushnell screamed over and over, "Free Palestine" before finally falling silent. U.S. Secret Service officers and D.C. firefighters put him out with a fire extinguisher about a minute later. EMTs rushed Bushnell to the hospital but he died from his self-inflicted wounds. "The individual involved in yesterday's incident succumbed to his injuries and passed away last night," the U.S. Air Force said in a statement afterward (via the Mirror).

Who was Aaron Bushnell?

Aaron Bushnell was a 25-year-old from Whitman, Massachusetts. He was a cyber-defense operations specialist stationed at Joint Base San Antonio Lackland. Bushnell was an "aspiring software engineer" who was "pursuing a Bachelor's degree in Software Engineering from Western Governor's University," according to his LinkedIn account. He grew up in a strict religious community on Cape Cod known as the Community of Jesus, which the Independent reported has posted pro-Isreal content on X (formerly Twitter). Elsewhere, CBS News likened it to a "Christian cult."

Bushnell had been on active duty since 2020 and apparently joined the military as a last resort due to financial problems brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Intercept determined the Reddit social media account with the handle acebush1 belonged to Bushnell. Throughout the last few years, he posted on the account about his regret in joining the military. "I'm sticking it out to the end of my contract as I didn't realize what a huge mistake it was until I was more than halfway through, and I only have a year left at this point," he wrote on Reddit. "However it is a regret I will carry the rest of my life." Bushnell's posts also show an ever-increasing pro-Palestinian stance.

Israel-Hamas War

Aaron Bushnell's self-immolation was a means to protest the Israel-Hamas War, which began on October 7, 2023. According to the Israeli government, the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas killed more than 1,200 Israelis (mostly civilians) and took around 250 hostages (via CBC). In retaliation, Israel invaded Gaza, and the city's Health Ministry said it has resulted in more than 29,000 Palestinian deaths, the majority of which were women and children. Other countries, including South Africa, have accused Israel of genocide, which Israel has strenuously denied.

A day before he took his own life, Bushnell told a friend he was privy to top-secret information and alleged the U.S. had sent combat troops into Gaza to fight Hamas. "His actual job involves the processing of intelligence data. Some of what he was processing had to do with the Israeli-Gaza conflict," Bushnell's unnamed friend told the New York Post. "One of the things he told me is that coming across his desk ... was the U.S. military was involved in the genocides going on in Palestine. He told me that we had troops on the ground, you know, that were there and were killing large numbers of Palestinians." The Post was unable to verify the information Bushnell told their source.

A history of extreme protest

Aaron Bushnell's self-immolation wasn't the first related to the Israel-Hamas war. In December 2023, a person set themselves on fire in front of the Israeli consulate in Atlanta, Georgia. Authorities released no information on the protester who was listed in critical condition. "We do not see any threat here," Atlanta Police Chief Darin Schierbaum told the Associated Press at the time. "We believe it was an act of extreme political protest that occurred." Police found a Palestinian flag nearby.

There is a long history of self-immolation as a political statement. One of the most well-known occurred in 1963 when a Buddhist monk in Vietnam set himself on fire to protest the mistreatment of his fellow monks by the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government. "It's an act of despair," Temple University history professor Ralph Young told Time. "You feel that there's nothing that you can do, or that people are willing to do, so this is the ultimate sacrifice — yourself."