Aaron Bushnell, A Courageous American  

A memorial display for Aaron Bushnell at the Fresno vigil on March 3. Photo by Bob McCloskey
A memorial display for Aaron Bushnell at the Fresno vigil on March 3. Photo by Bob McCloskey

On Feb. 25, 25-year-old Senior Airman Aaron James Bushnell, a cyber-defense operations specialist, set himself on fire outside the front gate of the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.

“Immediately prior to the act that was livestreamed, Bushnell said that he was protesting against ‘what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers’ and declared that he ‘will no longer be complicit in genocide,’ after which he doused himself with a flammable liquid and set himself on fire,” according to Wikipedia.

“As he burned, Bushnell repeatedly shouted ‘Free Palestine!’ while one Secret Service officer pointed a gun at him and two others attempted to extinguish the flames.”

Sadly, Bushnell passed away after being transported to a hospital. By all accounts from people who knew him, Bushnell was a kind and compassionate person, committed to peace and justice, who often provided mutual aid to the unhoused community of San Antonio.

In an opinion piece in The Guardian on March 2, his friend, Levi Pierpont, said of Bushnell, “He has already inspired so many to stand up for truth and justice.

“It breaks my heart that his life ended this way. I could never do what he did, and I don’t believe anyone should do what he did. But we’ll never get Aaron back.

“All we can do is hear the message he died to shine a spotlight on: the horrors of the genocide in Gaza and the complicity we share as military members and taxpayers of a government deeply invested in violence.”

Mainstream media almost immediately began portraying the act as a suicide by a disturbed individual. Without speculating as to Bushnell’s motives, it’s important to try and understand what the practice of self-immolation is about in Buddhism.

The following is an excerpt from “Understanding self-immolation in Buddhism after Wynn Bruce’s Earth Day action” by Chris Goto-Jones on April 28, 2022.

In brief, it is an extreme form of Buddhist practice, not an instrumental device to bring about calculated political change. Buddhist self-immolation first hit the headlines in North America in 1963, with journalist Malcom Browne’s now iconic, Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức sitting in flames at an intersection in Saigon.

President John F. Kennedy famously remarked that “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world.” He may have been right, but those emotions were widely varied; how we judge such actions depends upon our own cultural and religious upbringing.

In 1965, Thích Nhất Hạnh wrote a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. in which he expressed concern that Buddhist self-immolation must be “difficult for [the] Western Christian conscience to understand.” (The letter appears in Hạnh’s 1967 book, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire.) In particular, he wanted to correct two likely misunderstandings: first, the misunderstanding that it was a form of suicide and second, the misunderstanding that it was an act of protest.

In general, Buddhist organizations are very careful not to condone or romanticize self-immolation or other extreme devotional practices, and some Buddhist traditions are strongly opposed to such practices…
In Nhất Hạnh’s letter to King, he explains that a self-immolating monk “says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people.”

By setting himself on fire, the monk embodies his vows in the most powerful way he can. By doing it in front of others, he hopes to awaken those who don’t recognize that they too are living in a burning house, and that they must find their own way to quench those flames or to escape. 

As in Christianity, suicide is strictly prohibited in Buddhism. However, for Nhất Hạnh, the self-immolation of Quảng Đức was not suicide, rather it was a devotional act of embodied practice: “the importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn.” Rather than intentional self-destruction or instrumental self-sacrifice, Nhất Hạnh encourages us to see manifestations of courageous compassion in the act. 

Since Bushnell’s courageous act, he has been recognized around the world. A street has been named after him in Palestine, and crowds carry banners with his image in Yemen.

On March 3, there was a vigil honoring Bushnell in Fresno. Several hundred people attended, and speakers Dr. Floyd Harris of New Light for New Life Church, Joshua Shurley of Veterans for Peace and an activist and teacher, and activist Zahra Al addressed the crowd. 

“Today we are here to honor Aaron Bushnell and the martyrs of [the] most recent massacre known as the ‘flour massacre,’ and all martyrs of Gaza due the ongoing genocide in Palestine,” said Al.

“Let’s also include the innocent lives lost in Lebanon, in Yemen, in Sudan and all areas across the globe. We honor all lives lost unjustly because we are all human and we are all equal.

“We must do everything we can to spread awareness and educate about the 76-year occupation of Palestinian land at the hands of their oppressor. We, Fresno, must support a ceasefire; we must support an end to the genocide.

“We collectively must support and motivate one another to be able to continue to fight for what is right, fight for humanity, fight for liberation, fight for peace, fight for Palestine!”

Shurley said, “While we may have feelings about the way that Aaron chose to go out, what [he] did was in service to others…[Aaron] showed us what the brutality of empire is, and showed us what service and a sense of justice means.” 

“This is an empire that is crumbling and that the power behind these institutions is a power based on death, deprivation and destruction,” added Shurley. “It’s power that tells us it cares about humanitarian relief as it drops bombs… 

“Gatherings like this are important to remind us that we are not alone in our opposition to this evil.

“They fear us in large numbers. They fear the ferocity of our message and the solidarity we demonstrate.”

Dr. Harris delivered a rousing speech, “When we hear a story of a soldier always giving, giving, instead, [Aaron] went out on his own terms, in the service of others, the service of the innocents, the pursuit of human freedom and in the pursuit of justice.

“Palestine has been oppressed for more than 75 years and has sacrificed. [It] has been pushed down in such a way that it screams out for someone somewhere to do something. And there’s no shortage of heroes in that struggle.

“So, we will not allow the powers to erase the voices of Palestine, not in Tel Aviv, not in Washington, and not in Fresno.”

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Homer Greene
Homer Greene
11 days ago

A well done essay. Thanks for posting it. I learned a lot. In Aaron Bushnell case, his act was an act of revolutionary suicide. May he RIP.

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