The Madison-Rafah Sister City Project

In Memoriam: Aaron Bushnell, 1999-2024

Radha Surya, Znet, March 22, 2024


All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born. 
— William Butler Yeats, “Easter, 1916”

His utterance was matter of fact, almost devoid of passion.  He was walking rapidly toward the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC at the time, and it’s not surprising he sounded as if he was somewhat out of breath.  He would have rehearsed the words in advance.  Every aspect of his planning was impeccable–from informing news sources in advance of the protest that was to take place to live streaming both his statement and the culminating action of setting himself on fire.  With moral courage of the kind that is all but impossible even to conceive, all but impossible to replicate, he did everything in his power to maximize the impact of his self-immolation and to ensure his message Free Palestine blazed strong and clear across the world.  And so having set the stage for the concluding act of his life, twenty-five-year-old Aaron Bushnell perished in the most excruciating manner possible.  You would be justified in saying US President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and others who operate behind the scenes—the defense contractors, the weapons manufacturers, the Wall Street and oil and gas titans decreed his death.  It was as though they too were present at the gates of the Israeli Embassy and had provided the fuel that was needed.  The young man identified the perpetrators—the ruling class–as he declared  “This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal” and live streamed his last moments.

Aaron Bushnell was of course referring to the savage genocide that Israel has been carrying out in the Gaza Strip since October 7, 2023.  Unrelenting bombardment has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians.  Unknown numbers perished when they were buried alive in the rubble of their homes.  There has been systematic targeting and elimination of the people who are foundational to a civil and functioning society.  Scholars, poets, intellectuals, professors, teachers, doctors, journalists, engineers, IT professionals have been done away with.  To speak of all this is merely to start to describe the human toll taken by the genocide.  In cities whole neighborhoods have been obliterated.  Much of Gaza has been reduced to rubble.  Hospitals have been attacked and destroyed.  Their staff has been killed, taken captive and tortured by the Israeli military.  Basic infrastructure–water pipes, water tanks and saline water treatment plants, sewage systems, solar panels etc.–has been deliberately sabotaged.  Universities and schools, mosques and churches lie in ruins.  By the end of January Israel had destroyed more than two hundred ancient and archaeological sites out of three hundred and twenty-five that were registered.  The centuries old cultural and historical heritage of the Gaza strip has been wiped out.  Palestinians have been robbed of their past, present and future.  In leveling the cultural monuments of Gaza to the ground Israel has simultaneously carried out an onslaught on the historical heritage of the human race  In this respect there is little difference between the state of Israel and entities condemned across the globe–the Taliban and the terrorist group ISIS.


This staggering, this monstrous devastation has been accomplished by Israel in less than five months.  It is a calculated and systematic genocide.  The people of the world have protested in vain.  Massive demonstrations condemning the genocide as well as smaller ones have been and continue to be held.  The UN Secretary General and heads of humanitarian UN agencies have condemned the suffering inflicted on the besieged and bombarded population of Gaza and issued repeated calls for a cessation of hostilities.  Through all of this Israel has remained remorseless, obdurate and intransigent.  As an appalled world was propelled inexorably toward the sixth month of the genocide in Gaza and in Palestine, 25-year-old Aaron Bushnell sacrificed his life in an act of protest whose memory and whose meaning must never be allowed to vanish from the public realm.  Plainly said he was responding to the breaching of the utmost limits of human toleration by the kind of evil that defies human comprehension.

What do we know about Aaron Bushnell?  What was his moral and political journey?  There are a few things we can piece together from commercial as well as uncompromised media coverage that followed his tragic death on the 25th of February, 2024.  We know about his concern for the plight of the homeless and that he worked with local groups to distribute food and clothing to the homeless population in San Antonio, Texas.  He continued his dedicated work when he moved to Akron, Ohio.  After his death became national and international news there were contemptible attempts to diminish the significance of his sacrifice and to smear him as a mentally unsound person.  It’s easy to refute the allegations.  Aaron Bushnell’s preparations for his final hours were meticulous.  Nothing was left to chance.  He had prepared a will:  “He took all the steps he needed to make sure that everything he had would be cared for, like his cat, he designated that to his neighbor,” Lupe Barboza of the Care Collective, told Texas Public Radio after he viewed the will.  “So yeah, that to me is all the sense of someone who was measured and knew what he was doing.”

By and large the mainstream media has shunned the inconvenient testimonies of the young man’s friends.  For that reason it is up to the uncompromised media to ensure their statements remain in the public realm.  The independent journalist Talia Jane has compiled some of these testimonies.  One of these is from Errico who met Bushnell in 2022:  “Aaron is the kindest, gentlest, silliest little kid in the Air Force.”   He also said:  “He’s always trying to think about how we can actually achieve liberation for all with a smile on his face.”  Xylem who worked with Bushnell to support the homeless in San Antonio said:  “He is one of the most principled comrades I’ve ever known.”  And there are the words of Bushnell’s friend Levi Pierpont:  “He was the sweetest guy you’d ever meet.”  It’s impossible not to notice that none of his friends viewed Aaron Bushnell as unhinged in some way.  Surely the encomiums of those who knew him best must outweigh anything that has been insinuated about Bushnell by the cheerleaders for the genocide in Gaza.

Young Aaron Bushnell was in love with life.  We know this because we have seen the picture from the karaoke party that his friends threw when he left San Antonio, Texas.  At the party, according to the Washington Post:  “He belted out song after song, many of which were from “Les Misérables,” which he was known to love. And one was Mandy Moore’s “Wind in My Hair” from the TV series based on the movie “Tangled.”  “I got a smile on my face,” Bushnell sang, “and I’m walking on air.”  Indeed, he has a smile on his face in the widely circulated party photo.  A lovely and infectious smile.  We will never learn anything about the inner agony he underwent as he prepared to die a self-inflicted death in an extreme act of protest (his words) against the so far unstoppable, months long genocide in Gaza.  We can only attempt to imagine the terrible struggle that took place as he conceived and prepared for his final hours.

In the aftermath of February 25 the uncompromised media has foregrounded the history of self-immolation as a form of protest.  The young man may have studied that history in whole or in part.  It’s known that many human beings have been burned alive in accidents, in acts of private vendetta, in pogroms like the ones in India where Hindu extremists turn against helpless Muslims.  In Aaron Bushnell’s case the young man made the deliberate choice of inflicting on himself the terrible pain of death by fire.  He was pitiless—with himself.  Attachment to life is ingrained in living beings.  In the George Orwell essay A Hanging the condemned man who is being led to his execution steps aside to avoid a puddle.  He has not grasped the imminence of his death.  The instinctive impulse to cling to life is strongest in those who are in love with life and have great expectations.  At the age of 25, Aaron Bushnell was in the flower of his youth.  His Linked In profile says he graduated top of flight and top of class.  Only the irredeemably obtuse would fail to recognize he was a bright young man.  A promising life lay ahead of him.  He turned his back on all of this when he resolved that after February 25 there would be no more tomorrows for him.  It would be easier to come to terms with his untimely death if for instance there was reason to think he was suicidal.  And that his premature death was inevitable.

But why blame the ruling class?  Or Israel for that matter?  Didn’t it all start with Hamas?  With the military offensive of October 7?  Doesn’t Israel have the right to defend itself?  Even if the right to self-defense entails the genocide of the designated enemy, the Palestinian people?  To address these questions it is necessary to recognize that in contrast to the representations of Israel, Western leaders and the compromised media, history did not begin on the 7th of October 2024.  It is possible to attribute different dates to the origin of the Israel-Palestine conflict.  To simplify matters one can say the conflict began when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homeland by Zionist militias at the time of the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.  Subsequent decades saw the emergence of a brutal Israeli military occupation and progressive appropriation by the Israeli state of enormous tracts of the unjustly truncated territory that was assigned to Palestine by the UN Partition plan of 1947.  Hamas only emerged in 1987–decades after the Israeli occupation had taken its toll on Palestinian lives and land.

As human beings who are opposed to the toll taken on civilians by military conflict we should deplore the deaths of Israeli civilians on October 7.  Equally we should challenge the exploitation of and capitalization on these deaths to carry through a program of genocide and ethnic cleansing.  The ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people is unlike any other that has taken place in history.  With the willing collusion of the US and the Western powers, the genocide is being carried out by Israel in full view of the world’s cameras.  It is relayed to us on a daily basis on television, on the internet, and on social media timelines.  The world has been witnessing depravity of a staggering kind—the storming of hospitals by the IDF, the severing of power supply to incubators with babies who are then left to decompose, the rounding up of civilians who are humiliated by being forced to strip.  They shiver in the cold as they wait to be interrogated and tortured by the IDF.  At the same time widely credited and influential reports published by the commercial media on the worst atrocities supposedly carried out by Hamas on October 7 have been effectively debunked.  The heroic efforts of the uncompromised media and independent journalists—The Electronic Intifada, The Grayzone, The Intercept and others—have exposed the lies propagated by Israel with the willing collusion of Western political leaders and leading Western news sources.  Despite the electrifying nature of these revelations they have been disregarded for the most part.  One consequence is Israeli genocide has remained unstoppable to date.

We look on in utter disbelief.  Forced as we are to bear witness to an ever-intensifying genocide we react with impotent fury, with outrage and anguish.  We watch as the suffering in the Gaza strip escalates, as starvation and famine take hold.  On March 18 EU foreign chief Josep Borrell declared that Gaza is now in a state of famine and that the famine is man made.  Like the genocide this is a famine that has no counterpart in human history.  Just beyond the Rafah crossing hundreds of trucks loaded with food supplies have been waiting for months.  They are blocked by Israel—deliberately and mercilessly–from entering Gaza.  Has there ever been an instance in history when food was stockpiled just a few miles from a captive territory with a displaced population that has been subjected to months long food shortage and now famine?  All while they are being bombarded, invaded and killed?

In the last week of February 2024 social media timelines started to carry the images of babies who had died of starvation in Gaza.  It was around the same time that young Aaron Bushnell was living the last hours of his short life.  Since then we have discovered that worse atrocities—if this were possible—lay ahead.  As of now Israel has normalized the killing of famished Palestinians waiting for aid.  The massacres are carried out by artillery shelling and firing from helicopters.  Swift—and unheeded–denunciations followed the flour bag massacre.  Israel wears an invincible armor of impunity.  In the US and the UK anti-Zionist Jewish groups have played an exemplary role in condemning the genocide in Gaza and organizing protests.  But the constituency that matters most is effectively pro-genocide.  Polls show that among Israeli Jews two thirds are opposed to the supply of humanitarian aid to the incessantly bombarded, many times displaced, famished population of the Gaza Strip.  In view of what one is witnessing, it is necessary to make extraordinary efforts to hold on to sanity.  In the midst of darkness, the moral clarity of Aaron Bushnell is life-giving.  The words uttered by the young man with his dying breath are unfading ones.  They will be remembered long after the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian homeland has ended.  Minutes before taking out his lighter the young man declared his extreme act of protest was not extreme at all compared to what people in Palestine have been experiencing at the hands of their colonizers.

We mourned the killing of Refaat Alareer, Palestinian poet and scholar who has been immortalized by his last poem “If I must die, you must live, to tell my story.”  We grieved when the Palestinian nephrologist Dr. Hammam Alloh died.  In November Israel issued expulsion orders to those who resided in northern Gaza.  Asked by Amy Goodman, host of the news program Democracy Now, why didn’t he flee with his family to the putative safety of south Gaza, the dedicated and undaunted specialist replied:  You think I went to medical school and for my postgraduate degrees for a total of 14 years, so I think only about my life and not my patients.  Two weeks later Dr. Hammam Alloh was killed in an airstrike that destroyed the home where he was sheltering with family members.  His body was found in the rubble.  And a few days ago we mourned the killing of Mohammed Barakat, ace football player and Palestinian icon.  Just before the missile (US made in all probability) struck his home, he recorded his final prayers and took leave of those he loved.  His last words were spoken with indescribable fortitude and dignity.  There have been so many others.  The losses come fast and thick.  Aaron Bushnell’s last message was Free Palestine.  As the flames consumed his body, he cried Free Palestine.  Over and over until he collapsed.  He was memorialized by his friend Levi Pierpont in the following words:  I want people to remember that his death is not in vain, that he died to spotlight this message. I don’t want anybody else to die this way. If he had asked me about this, I would have begged him not to. I would have done anything I could to stop him. But, obviously, we can’t get him back. And we have to honor the message that he left.

Radha Surya
Radha Surya writes on issues in Indian and international politics. Her articles have appeared on Znet and Countercurrents. She lives and works in the United States in Bloomington, Indiana.

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