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People and Planet: Bushnell’s self-immolation a cry for justice

One of the most recognizable images of the 20th century is of Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk who set himself ablaze and died at a busy Saigon intersection. The year was 1963 and Đức was protesting the pro-Catholic South Vietnamese Diem’s persecution of Buddhists. 

President John F. Kennedy, notably the only Catholic president elected in U.S. history at the time, simply said of the self-immolation, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”

Feb. 25, Senior Airman Aaron Bushnell, a cyber defense operations specialist in the U.S. Air Force, livestreamed as he approached the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He was dressed in fatigues and calmly spoke into the camera to explain what he was about to do and why. 

“I will no longer be complicit in genocide,” he said. “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.”

Israel’s ongoing invasion of Gaza has killed over 30,000 Palestinians most being women and children. 

Bushnell proceeds to prop up his phone, pour a flammable liquid over his head and light himself on fire. Before he collapses, he repeatedly screams, “Free Palestine! Free Palestine!”

Bushnell would later die as a result of his injuries.

Almost immediately, X, formerly known as Twitter, exploded with commentary and speculation about who this person was and concluded for themselves why he did what he did. Despite Bushnell’s calm, collected demeanor and a clear understanding of what he was about to do and why, he was automatically deemed mentally ill, somehow nullifying his death as an act of protest.

Bushnell’s true mental state as he flicked that lighter will never be known, but clearly, he was deemed stable enough to join the military. And even if he was mentally ill, there are far easier and less painful ways to go. Few people who commit suicide are screaming a political slogan with their final breaths.

Levi Pierpont befriended Bushnell when they met at basic training in May 2020, and immediately, Pierpont said he could tell Bushnell had a “strong sense of justice.” Pierpont would go on to leave the Air Force as a conscientious objector in July 2023, and Bushnell likely would have done the same if he wasn’t so close to his own end date. 

Both Pierpont and Bushnell began immersing themselves in video essays about social activism online and wanted to learn more about the world outside of what they’d been exposed to so far. Although there will never be a definite truth to how Bushnell was feeling when he lit himself on fire, one thing can be understood: Bushnell had immense empathy for his fellow man. The U.S. military is directly enabling Israel’s violence against Palestinians by pouring money into Israel. 

For someone in the military who vehemently disagrees with Israel’s invasion, it has to be deeply troubling to feel you have any sort of role in what is happening. Typical forms of protest may feel futile in getting the message across.

Self-immolation has long existed and is practiced in various corners of the world. Although self-immolation first gained attention with Đức’s protest of the treatment of Buddhists, it has been observed in Eastern Europe in protest of the Soviet Union, in Tunisia to protest poor economic conditions and corruption and in South Korea in protest of labor conditions. 

In the U.S., another protester of Israel recently survived self-immolation in December, this time at the Israeli consulate in Atlanta. In 2018, prominent LGBTQIA+ rights attorney and environmental activist David S. Buckel set himself on fire in New York City to protest inaction on climate change.

Those trying to write this off as simply an act of a mentally ill individual are severely out of touch with their humanity. This is not to say everyone should start lighting themselves on fire, but that some simply feel this deeply and are willing to become a martyr to be heard, an idea becoming increasingly foreign in today’s world.

Pierpont adamantly defends the fact that Bushnell would not consider his actions an act of suicide, but a plea as desperate as a man whose body is burning for the world to listen.

“He didn’t have thoughts of suicide,” Pierpont said. “He had thoughts of justice. That’s what this was about. It wasn’t about his life. It was about using his life to send a message.”

Megan Diehl is a junior studying journalism at Ohio University. Please note that the views expressed in this column do not represent those of The Post. Want to talk to Megan? Email her at

Megan Diehl

Assistant Opinion Editor

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