Aaron Bushnell Self-Immolation: What We Know

On Sunday afternoon outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C., 25-year-old Air Force service member Aaron Bushnell placed his phone on the ground to set up a livestream. He then stood before the embassy gates and lit himself on fire while shouting “Free Palestine” in a horrific protest against the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. Below is everything we know about Bushnell, who died from his wounds on Sunday night.

Bushnell was a 25-year-old member of the U.S. Air Force stationed at the Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio and originally from Whitman, Massachusetts. He joined the Air Force as an active-duty member in May 2020 and has since worked in information technology and development operations. In a statement on Monday, the Air Force stated that he was a cyber-defense operations specialist with the 531st Intelligence Support Squadron.

Bushnell grew up in a religious group on Cape Cod called the Community of Jesus, whose former members have come forward alleging abuse and a rigid social structure. According to a family friend and former Community of Jesus member who spoke with the Washington Post, he was raised in a religious compound in Orleans associated with the group. The friend told the Post that young people in the Community of Jesus often join the military, moving from “one high-control group to another high-control group.”

Friends who spoke with the Post say that while Bushnell was stationed in San Antonio, he was attending events for a socialist organization and delivered food to people on the street. Friends state that his contract with the military was to expire in May and he was looking for a career transition. Following the police killing of George Floyd, they say he had become more open in his objection to the military. “He said that he kind of went from one extreme — the conservative beliefs that he had grown up around — to the opposite, forming his anarchist, anti-imperialist values,” a friend in San Antonio told the New York Times. “And he said it was a very quick shift, and he just said it went from one extreme to the other.” In late 2023, friends say he moved to Ohio as part of a military training program for transitioning out of active duty.

On Sunday, hours before he went to the Israeli embassy, Bushnell texted a friend who shared the message with the Post. “I hope you’ll understand. I love you,” Bushnell wrote. “This doesn’t even make sense, but I feel like I’m going to miss you.” Weeks earlier, Bushnell talked on the phone with the same friend about “their shared identities as anarchists and what kinds of risks and sacrifices were needed to be effective,” according to the Post.

A friend who spoke to the New York Post states that Bushnell spoke to him on the phone on Saturday night. Bushnell said that he had top-security clearance and that he was distressed by what he was seeing in Gaza. “He told me on Saturday that we have troops in those tunnels, that it’s U.S. soldiers participating in the killings,’’ the friend said. “There’s just too many things I don’t know, but I can tell you that the tone of his voice just had something in it that told me he was scared,’’ the friend said. (While the U.S. has special-operations troops in Israel to reportedly identify American hostages, the Biden administration has stated that there will be no American soldiers in Gaza.)

Hours before lighting himself on fire, Bushnell posted a Twitch link on his Facebook page with the caption:

Many of us like to ask ourselves, “What would I do if I was alive during slavery? Or the Jim Crow South? Or apartheid? What would I do if my country was committing genocide?”

The answer is, you’re doing it. Right now.

Shortly before 1 p.m. on Sunday, Bushnell began his livestream and walked toward the Israeli Embassy with an insulated water bottle full of flammable fluid. “I will no longer be complicit in genocide,” he said in his video. “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.”

Bushnell then placed his phone on the ground and walked to the gates of the embassy, where he doused himself in liquid from the bottle. “Free Palestine,” he said, as he struggled to light himself. A law-enforcement officer approached, asking, “Can I help you, sir?” At this point, Bushnell lit himself on fire, screaming, “Free Palestine.”

As Bushnell screamed in pain, a law-enforcement officer off-camera yells at him to “get on the ground.” A second officer yelled at the first: “I don’t need guns, I need fire extinguishers.” By the time D.C. Fire and EMS arrived on the scene, the fire had been put out.

An incident report filed by a Secret Service agent states that they “received a distress call regarding an individual exhibiting signs of mental distress outside the Israeli embassy.” (The Secret Service is responsible for foreign-embassy security.) “Before the Secret Service officers could engage, [Bushnell] doused himself with an unidentified liquid and set himself on fire. The Secret Service officers promptly intervened, extinguishing the flames before the arrival of the fire department. [Bushnell] was subsequently transported to a local hospital due to the burns sustained from the incident. The report states that Bushnell was pronounced dead at 10:06 p.m. on Sunday.”

In the hours before his death, Bushnell emailed several left-leaning websites alerting them to his “highly disturbing” final act. “Today, I am planning to engage in an extreme act of protest against the genocide of the Palestinian people,” read the email, which was forwarded to the BBC.

Bushnell’s video was taken down by Twitch for violating its terms of service, though edited versions blurring out his burning figure are circulating on social media. The Secret Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating the incident along with the Metropolitan Police Department. Prior to his death, he emailed several left-leaning websites, stating that he was “planning to engage in an extreme act of protest against the genocide of the Palestinian people.”

People who knew Bushnell in San Antonio were stunned by his act. At a public vigil for Bushnell in the city on Friday, one told the BBC that “Initially, there was just a lot of shock and sadness, that he felt this was the only action that he could do to bring attention to something that he cared heavily about. It’s hard that he chose these actions, it’s hard to comprehend even from people who sympathise with a ceasefire and the safety of Palestinian people and civilians.”

Bushnell’s act was not the first self-immolation in apparent protest of the Israel-Hamas war. In December, a woman lit herself on fire in front of the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta in what police described as an act of “extreme political protest” over the war. The woman survived but sustained third-degree burns over her entire body and was hospitalized in critical condition. Her identity has not been released by police. A 61-year-old Army veteran who worked as a security guard at the consulate suffered severe burns when he attempted to save the woman.

Since the Vietnam War, self-immolation has been a dramatic but rare act of protest in the U.S. Vigils were held throughout the country on Monday night in memory of Bushnell, including at the Israeli Embassy where he held his final protest.

This post has been updated.

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