Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

An extreme act of protest

Aaron Bushnell, Jan Palach, and resisting the normalization of the unthinkable

Middle EastWar ZonesHuman Rights

On February 25, Aaron Bushnell, a 25-year-old serviceman of the United States Air Force, died after setting himself on fire outside the front gate of the Embassy of Israel in Washington, DC.

As the whole world by now surely knows, shortly before 1 pm on Sunday, February 25, Aaron Bushnell, a 25-year-old United States Air Force cyber-defense operations specialist serving with the 531st Intelligence Support Squadron in San Antonio, Texas, walked to the gates of the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC.

As he approached the embassy, he livestreamed a statement on the social media site Twitch via his cell phone:

My name is Aaron Bushnell. I’m 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’s not extreme at all. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal.

The young airman positioned his phone on the ground to video what was going to happen next, poured flammable liquid over his head, lit himself on fire, and stood to attention for as long as he could. He was wearing his air force uniform. Bushnell’s last words, which he screamed several times before collapsing, were “Free Palestine!”

After Secret Service officers extinguished the flames—this being America, one of them kept a gun pointed at the burning airman throughout his ordeal, shouting “Get on the ground! Get on the ground!”—Bushnell was taken by ambulance to a local hospital. He was pronounced dead at 10:06 pm.

A non-violent act of despair

An earlier protest against US support for Israeli action in Gaza by a so far unidentified woman carrying a Palestinian flag who set herself on fire outside the Israeli consulate in Atlanta on December 1 attracted little press attention. Bushnell did his utmost to ensure that his death would not similarly go unnoticed, and social media did the rest.

Prior to setting out, he emailed a link to the Twitch livestream to several reporters and left-wing news sites giving notice that “Today, I am planning to engage in an extreme act of protest against the genocide of the Palestinian people.” It would, he warned, be “very disturbing.” He asked that “you make sure that the footage is preserved and reported on.” It later emerged that the previous week Bushnell had made a will in which he left his savings to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund and arranged for a neighbour to take care of his cat. Whether or not one agrees with them, these were considered and purposeful actions.

Initial media reports downplayed Bushnell’s political motivation—the New York Times headline “Man Dies After Setting Himself on Fire Outside Israeli Embassy in Washington, Police Say” was aptly described by Al Jazeera’s Belén Fernández as “a rather strong contender, perhaps, for the most diluted and decontextualised headline ever.” Many supporters of Israel tried to explain away the airman’s protest as the result of mental illness or, like Republican senator Tom Cotton, insinuated “extremist leanings” in his past. In the face of Bushnell’s footage going viral on social media, however, such attempts to bury the story or deflect from its message were soon superseded by more serious analyses of self-immolation as a form of political protest.

Recalling among others the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức, who set himself on fire at a Saigon intersection in 1963; Americans Alice Herz and Norman Morrison, who burned themselves to death protesting the Vietnam War; and Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, whose 2010 self-immolation launched the Arab Spring, several commentators situated Bushnell’s self-sacrifice in a long tradition of extreme protest. These are all what the French sociologist Émile Durkheim termed altruistic suicides, in which individuals sacrifice their lives out of loyalty to a group or cause.

Ironically, this is exactly the same kind of loyalty that our societies honour with Purple Hearts and Victoria Crosses—or what poet Wilfred Owen, protesting the senseless slaughter of the First World War, dubbed “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori.” The difference is that the cause for which Bushnell martyred himself is not sanctioned by the state, and this immediately catapults it into a different realm of discourse.

In a lucid article in The New Yorker, Russian American journalist Masha Gessen argues that “Self-immolation is a nonviolent act of despair.” It was not Bushnell who was crazy, she suggests, but the situation in which he found himself—a situation that was made worse by the fact that he was a serving member of the US military. He confronted a stark double bind, from which he could see no honorable way out.

As a member of “a generation of Americans—adults under the age of thirty—who express more sympathy with Palestinians than with Israelis in the current conflict,” faced with “a Presidential race between two elderly men who seem to differ little on what for Bushnell was the most pressing issue in the world today: the slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza,” the young airman had every reason for hopelessness:

Maybe Bushnell watched or read about the proceedings of South Africa’s case against Israel in the International Court of Justice. Perhaps he listened to the litany of atrocities that grew familiar as fast as it became outdated: the exact thousands of women and children killed, the precise majority of Gazans who are experiencing extreme hunger. That court ordered Israel to take immediate measures to protect Palestinian civilians. Israel has ignored the ruling, and the United States has vetoed resolutions calling for a ceasefire and argued, in another ICJ case, that the court should not order Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This was a government that Bushnell had sworn to protect with his life, subverting mechanisms created to enforce international law, including law—such as the Genocide Convention—that the United States had played a key role in drafting.

What was most radical in Durkheim’s classic study of suicide was his insistence that whatever their individual circumstances, every suicide had its social conditions. In Aaron Bushnell’s case, the social conditions were the cognitive dissonance that arose from the west tearing up the “rules-based order” it had established after the Second World War in order to allow an ally to commit what the ICJ ruled was a plausible genocide.

Torch no. 1

Among the historical precedents for Bushnell’s protest mentioned by Gessen are several cases of self-immolation in the erstwhile Soviet bloc, of which the suicide of Jan Palach, a 20-year-old student of history and political economy at Charles University in Prague, is the best known. On January 16, 1969, Palach set himself on fire in front of the National Museum in Wenceslas Square, a Prague location that has an equivalent symbolic place in Czech political life as London’s Trafalgar Square or the National Mall in Washington DC. Palach, too, had ample reason for hopelessness.

Five months previously, the Soviet-led invasion of August 21-22 had brutally ended Czechoslovak communist reformers’ attempts to create “socialism with a human face.” Though many reformers still retained their positions in the party and state leadership—they would gradually be pushed out over the next eighteen months—the Prague Spring reforms were already being rolled back in a process euphemistically known as “normalization.” Compromised by their collaboration with the occupiers and increasingly alienated from the people, communist party secretary Alexander Dubček, prime minister Oldřich Černík, president Ludvík Svoboda, and the rest of the reformers were slowly becoming no more than shabby decorations on the facade of the normalization regime, signifiers of abject accommodation and submission.

Palach left a letter in his briefcase explaining why, in these circumstances, he thought his extreme action was necessary. It was intended to be a wake-up call:

Because our nations [i.e., Czechs and Slovaks] find themselves on the brink of hopelessness, we have decided to express our protest and awaken the people of this land by the following means. Our group is composed of volunteers who are determined to let themselves burn for our cause. I had the honor of drawing the first lot and so have gained the right to write the first letters and step up as the first torch.

Two days after Palach set himself ablaze, the New York Times ran an editorial titled “Human torch in Prague.” Its tone was very different from its coverage of Bushnell’s suicide (which did not merit an editorial). It concluded:

The attempted self-immolation in Prague of Jan Palach—who signed himself “Torch Number One,” in his farewell letter—is a sign of the desperation to which patriotic and democratically minded elements in Czechoslovakia have been driven.

Back then, when the fault lines between good and evil neatly coincided with the Iron Curtain, America’s self-proclaimed paper of record had no difficulty accepting the notion of self-immolation as a non-violent act of despair. Or in linking it with those supposedly quintessentially Western values of patriotism, freedom and democracy.

Truth will prevail

Jan Palach died of his injuries three days later. His death unleashed an immense outpouring of grief. Tens of thousands of ordinary people lined up for hours to pay their respects as his coffin lay in state at the Karolinum, the medieval seat of Charles University, on January 24.

University rector Oldřich Starý began the funeral ceremonies the next morning with these words:

In deep emotion, with pain and pride the academic community of Charles University bows before the dead Jan Palach, a student of the Philosophical Faculty. His heroic and tragic act is the expression of a pure heart, of the highest love for the homeland, truth, freedom and democracy.

After the speeches were over the coffin was placed on a hearse, behind which Palach’s mother Libuše, older brother Jiří, and sister-in-law Ilona led “an immense procession, which snaked like a river through the Fruit Market, Celetná Street, and the Old Town Square and stopped in front of the Philosophical Faculty building on the square that was spontaneously renamed Jan Palach Square in honor of the immolated young man on January 20, 1969.”

A young boy salutes during Jan Palach’s funeral, Prague, January 25, 1969. Photo by Milon Novotný/Wikimedia Commons.

Some 200,000 people filled Prague’s streets, honouring as well as mourning the nation’s latest martyr. Many drew a link between Jan Palach and Jan Hus, the Czech religious reformer who was burnt at the stake by the Council of Constance in 1415 because he refused to recant his heretical views, whose statue stands in the Old Town Square. The Hussite slogan “Pravda vítězí“—truth will prevail—was the official motto of Czechoslovakia and remains the motto of today’s Czech Republic.

No senior government or party figures attended Palach’s funeral, and the normalizers soon did their best to discredit his sacrifice. A scurrilous rumor was spread that his immolation started as a hoax organized by writer Pavel Kohout, Olympic medalist Emil Zátopek, chess grandmaster Luděk Pachman, and other prominent critics of the invasion that went tragically wrong. But the young man’s memory proved impossible to eradicate. His grave in Prague’s Olšany Cemetery became a site of pilgrimage.

Tired of the endless procession of visitors with their flowers and their candles, the authorities exhumed Palach’s remains one night in 1973, cremated his body, and returned the ashes to his family in the little country town of Všetaty. The square in front of the Philosophical Faculty officially remained Red Army Square throughout the years of normalization, but within weeks of the fall of communism in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 it was formally renamed Jan Palach Square.

I hear your cowardice

Much as Palach’s gesture was respected by his compatriots, nobody wanted to see it repeated. It was precisely an act of despair. The veteran poet Jaroslav Seifert, who would go on to become the first Czech winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, issued a plea to Czechoslovakia’s youth on behalf of the Writers’ Union:

Not even you, students who have resolved upon the most despairing act, can be allowed to have the feeling that there is no other path than the one you have chosen. I beg you, do not think in your despair that our cause can only be solved now and that it will be solved only here.

He was right, but youth is not always given to patience.

On February 25—the anniversary of the 1948 putsch that brought the communist party to power in Czechoslovakia—another young man, scarcely more than a boy really, an eighteen-year-old high school student from Šumperk in Northern Moravia named Jan Zajíc, elected to go up in flames on Wenceslas Square as “Torch no. 2.”

A few days before his death Zajíc had written a poem titled “The Last One,” which he dedicated to Jan Palach. Here it is, in full:

I hear your cowardice,
it cries in the fields,
it bawls in the cities,
it whimpers at the crossroads,
it stammers with fear of death
and does not feel how death alerts and entices
From the church towers tolls
the death knell of the nation and the land
In the name of life
I burn

Palach’s and Zajíc’s suicides are often represented as protests against the Soviet occupation, but this misses a crucial dimension of the young men’s actions. As both their words make abundantly clear, the “torches” were protesting not just the occupation, but above all their compatriots’ failure to resist—and therefore, their active complicity in—its normalization.

As Václav Havel would later argue in his celebrated essay “The Power of the Powerless,” by going through the motions of conformity to the system, “individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.” They are “objects in a system of control, but at the same time they are its subjects as well. They are both the victims of the system and its instruments.”

Living in lies, dying in truth

Havel’s insight does not just apply to communist regimes. Rejecting complicity in a war he found morally unacceptable, and refusing to compromise on his convictions, Aaron Bushnell chose to engage in a gruesome, shocking act of protest that exposed our everyday normalizations for the lies that they are.

His supreme sacrifice cuts like a knife through the Orwellian doublethink—mass slaughter of innocent civilians is “self-defense,” the IDF is “the most moral army in the world”—that allows us to continue to live with what the highest court in the world has described as a plausible genocide.

In case anyone is in need of a reminder, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin admitted on March 1 that Israel’s assault has now killed at least 25,000 women and children alone in Gaza, as compared with 1,139 people, only 695 of whom were Israeli civilians and only 36 of whom were children, who died in Israel on October 7.

Bushnell’s message applies most obviously to those Western political leaders who have gaslit Israel’s slaughter—Biden, Sunak, Starmer, Scholz, Trudeau—by providing arms, diplomatic cover, and repression of critics at home. But it should not stop there.

Captioning the link to his Twitch livestream, Bushnell’s last Facebook post read:

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.

Derek Sayer is professor emeritus at the University of Alberta and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. His most recent book, Postcards from Absurdistan: Prague at the End of History, won the 2023 Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Scholarship and was a finalist for the Association of American Publishers PROSE Award in European History.


Broadbent leaderboard

Browse the Archive