Aaron Bushnell: Martyr for Palestine

The profound courage and shocking power of Aaron Bushnell’s self-martyrdom has electrified the movement for a free Palestine, while the bourgeois media obfuscates his protest against genocide and questions his mental health. It is vitally important to honor Bushnell’s sacrifice for its political and moral clarity, and to contextualize it within the mass radicalization of workers and the oppressed.

by | Mar 1, 2024

Last Sunday, February 25, Aaron Bushnell, a 25-year-old active-duty airman in the United States Air Force, set himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington DC, in what he called “an extreme act of protest against the genocide of the Palestinian people.”

Before dousing himself with flammable liquid and setting himself ablaze, he calmly stated his opposition to the genocide that the US and Israel are committing against Palestinians, and to colonialism and the ruling class. “I will no longer be complicit in genocide,” Bushnell said in a video livestreamed during his final moments. His last words were “Free Palestine!” which he shouted over and over again until his body succumbed to the flames.

Bushnell’s self-immolation was in fact the second one in the US in protest of the genocide in Gaza, after that of an unidentified woman in Atlanta who set herself aflame in front of the Israeli consulate in Atlanta in December.

Bushnell’s shocking, profoundly courageous act of self-sacrifice has echoed through the hearts of millions around the world. Many of us feel the same level of desperation over the genocide, which shows no sign of stopping despite the popular outcry against it. However, Bushnell expressed his desperation in a way that is unimaginable to most of us. He resolutely gave away his life in public in order to inspire the rest of us into action, and to demonstrate that “this is what our ruling class has decided is normal,” as he put it in his final statement.

It was an act whose political content is clear. It is there in Bushnell’s words, in the fact that he wore his military uniform, in his decision to livestream his martyrdom: colonization and genocide are intolerable and they must be stopped.

Bushnell’s friends have described him as a kind, thoughtful, deeply caring person. He was an anarchist active in mutual-aid work in San Antonio, Texas, where he was stationed. Those who knew him say that Bushnell, who had earlier escaped the highly insular Christian enclave in Massachusetts in which he was raised, had in recent years grown into a deeply principled advocate for the unhoused and other marginalized people, and a staunch opponent of US imperialism. The latter was a political commitment that Bushnell sharpened during his time in the military.

Downplaying Bushnell’s sacrifice

Given the confluence of factors — a horrifying genocide being livestreamed for all to see, an unprecedented level of popular outrage against it, and a ruling class and media determined to continue it at all costs — an act so vivid, so extreme, and yet so inspiring cannot help but rattle the establishment and move supporters of Palestine everywhere to further action. As if in recognition of this, the bourgeois media has gone out of its way to either ignore Bushnell’s martyrdom, to individualize  it, or even to pathologize it as an act of “mental illness.”

The media, the ruling class they represent, and all related institutions which prop up the power of this class — from the military, to the bourgeois political parties, to academia — cannot comprehend the idea of such a monumental self-sacrifice. For them, it is simply unfathomable. The only things they understand are those which are self-serving. Martyrdom is both an indictment of and a clear-eyed response to all this class represents: exploitation, oppression, white supremacy, colonialism, and mass murder.

It was an act whose political content is clear. It is there in Bushnell’s words, in the fact that he wore his military uniform, in his decision to livestream his martyrdom: colonization and genocide are intolerable and they must be stopped.

For these reasons, it is wrong to focus on Bushnell’s mental health; or to argue that sharing news of his final act poses a danger to others with suicidal thoughts; or to suggest, as one Guardian writer has, that Bushnell should have kept himself alive to work for a better world. These takes either miss the point, or represent active efforts to diminish Bushnell’s bravery, extreme resolve, and sense of duty to humanity. They are a discredit to the choice he made and communicated to the rest of us, and to the stated purpose of his protest.

Bushnell’s death was a message to the rest of us. It is on all of us whose governments are co-authoring the genocide to honor his sacrifice, and to step up and be accountable. This especially applies to those of us living in the US — the nation most responsible for enabling the Zionist entity’s crimes.

The bourgeois media’s obfuscation of Bushnell’s martyrdom won’t make us forget that his act stands in a long, noble tradition of political self-immolation. Many have been reminded of Thích Quảng Đức, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk whose self-immolation in protest of religious repression toppled Vietnam’s authoritarian regime in 1963. We should also recall Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who burned himself in protest of police harassment in December of 2010, sparking the massive international uprisings of the Arab Spring.

It remains to be seen if Bushnell’s final protest will have similar ramifications on the stage of world history, but it deserves to be honored nonetheless.

In Arabic, the word for martyr is shaheed. This is an especially apt description of Bushnell since that term more specifically connotes bearing witness to injustice. 

The state and self-sacrifice

The scene of Bushnell’s martyrdom provided another ancillary but very relevant political lesson about the role and function of the police. That the cops arriving on the scene drew their guns instead of offering him help speaks volumes. Not only is this an ugly symbol of the uselessness and unthinking cruelty of the police — a reminder that all cops are bastards! — but it demonstrated something more fundamental about the state.

Friedrich Engels said that the state under capitalism is composed of “special bodies of armed men” whose purpose is to smash the movements of workers and the oppressed. In other words the violence of the state is integral to its functioning under capitalism; police violence, racism, homophobia and so on is not an aberration but another thing that “our ruling class have decided is normal.” This is no more clear than in the clash of Bushnell’s act of self-sacrifice with the brutal robotic logic of the police.

It would be hard to find a simpler or better illustration of why the police must be abolished.

It is also pertinent to remember a popular slogan from the movement against the genocide: NYPD, KKK, IDF — they’re all the same! The cops in the US and the Israeli soldiers who are carrying out the genocide in Gaza are in a larger sense one and the same.

Drawing the class line

As mentioned above, Bushnell’s statement highlighted the role of the ruling class in this genocide. His self-sacrifice has immediately drawn the class line: between the masses of everyday people of good conscience on the one side, and the ruling class and its weapons and mouthpieces on the other. The diverse working class and oppressed masses each carry our own specific experiences and histories of struggle under capitalism, yet we all immediately understood Bushnell’s martyrdom in remarkably similar ways, as a logical act of defiance against an unaccountable, genocidal ruling class. 

This echoes the ways that the George Floyd rebellion and the COVID pandemic helped draw the class line. On the one side, we had workers and oppressed communities sacrificing ourselves to defy heavily armed, racist police, or to keep our communities whole. On the other side, we saw capitalists profiting from new rounds of accumulation, and bourgeois politicians sanctioning these predations with alligator tears or eugenicist, genocidal rhetoric.  

The diverse working class and oppressed masses each carry our own specific experiences and histories of struggle under capitalism, yet we all immediately understood Bushnell’s martyrdom in remarkably similar ways, as a logical act of defiance against an unaccountable, genocidal ruling class. 

There is a bright red thread running through the events of the George Floyd uprising, the early COVID years, and the Zionist state’s attempt to wipe out the Palestinian people. This has been the increasing clarity with which the exploited and oppressed see that we are all ultimately disposable to our rulers. This is a significant shift from the era of Occupy and the 2016 Bernie Sanders zeitgeist of democratic socialism, which held illusions in the reformability of the system.

This shift is an important development that indicates the possibility of rising revolutionary consciousness during an epoch of permanent and accelerating crisis. It is up to us as communists to speak to this rising consciousness and help shape it into a revolutionary movement.

As we go about fighting for a free Palestine and organizing for revolution, let us never forget the moral clarity, boundless compassion, and unwavering valiance demonstrated by Bushnell.

We end with the words of the Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM), and then of Bushnell himself, which perfectly echo our views.

PYM: “Aaron Bushnell is a martyr, whose final moment was spent in the heat of one naked, unflinching truth: the moral conscience of every human being, from the belly of the beast to the farthest reaches of the Earth, demands immediate attention and action to end the horrors before us. Let Aaron’s words and last act burn brightly in our conscience, let it propel us, let it move us to continue struggling for a Free Palestine, now and until the hour of liberation.” 

Aaron Bushnell: “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. Free Palestine! Free Palestine! Free Palestine!” 

Rest in power, comrade Aaron.

Illustration by James Radek

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