The legacy of Aaron Bushnell and Gaza

How should we perceive the world around us during times of conflict?
Olivia Haill - Argosy Illustrator

“‘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 are doing it. Right now.” These were the last words posted on Aaron Bushnell’s Facebook page. Bushnell’s questions are haunting, the mention of genocide, slavery, and apartheid evokes a hard-hitting accusation that is hard to ignore. Many activists around the world have accused the Israeli state of committing war crimes within the Palestinian territories, especially within Gaza. In addition, South Africa brought a case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) this past January, accusing Israel of war crimes and committing genocide against the Palestinian people. However, what makes the words by Bushnell so haunting is that shortly after their posting, on February 25, Bushnell arrived at the Israeli embassy in Washington D.C., and in a self-proclaimed act of extreme protest, Bushnell set himself on fire. Dressed in his fatigues from his job within the U.S. Air Force, he ignited and subsequently burned, as he repeated “Free Palestine!” until he could no longer speak. The event created shockwaves around the world and brought attention to Bushnell’s claims. Are we currently watching a genocide of the Palestinian people?

Given the extreme nature of self-immolation, Bushnell’s actions were meant to grab the eyes of the American people, in addition to other people worldwide, to bring attention to his perception of the Israel-Gaza conflict. Bushnell’s words right before his self-immolation were as follows: “I am an active-duty member of the United States Air Force, and I will no longer be complicit in genocide. 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 is not extreme at all. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal.” Self-immolation as an act of protest is not new, with the act being interpreted as the highest form of political protest, even before the days of Thích Quảng Đức in Vietnam, 1963. The subsequent media coverage has been eye-opening to many people, because if someone is willing to set themselves on fire, maybe there is more to the story than people originally thought. Various news outlets, like the New York Post, have pointed to mental health issues and general anti-Israeli derangement as the cause for Bushnell’s decision to end his life. 

However, what about the reasons Bushnell gave himself? The accusation of genocide perpetuated by the Israeli government and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is not unfounded. Over 30,000 have died within Gaza since October 7, the majority being civilians, and thousands more Palestinians died by Israeli attacks and consequences of famine before this date. The IDF is hindering humanitarian aid into Gaza, with accusations of withholding aid and food being met with little response. This pattern of little response seeps into Israel’s response to the ICJ’s ruling that they must prevent any genocidal actions, with Human Rights Watch stating: “Israel continues to obstruct the provision of basic services and the entry and distribution within Gaza of fuel and lifesaving aid, acts of collective punishment that amount to war crimes and include the use of starvation of civilians as a weapon of war.” However, this fact mingled with the consistency of the United States and Canada funding the Israeli military, knowing that these agencies have denounced and condemned Israeli actions. In addition, the United States within the UN Security Council, has consistently vetoed any action that would require the US to call for a ceasefire or denounce the actions of the Israeli government. Hence, the consequences of this have left thousands of innocent civilians dead, plus, the death of Bushnell. The question is not if there is a genocide, or collective punishment happening to Palestinian civilians, but, how much more can society bear through before something will finally change?

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