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Aaron Bushnell and the Psychology Behind Radicalization and Self-Harm

On February 25, US airman Aaron Bushnell set himself on fire before the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC, shouting, “Free Palestine.” He died of his injuries the next day. Bushnell thus joined a long history of protestors who have used self-immolation for political means. What drives someone to such an extreme act of self-destruction?

Self-immolation of Aaron Bushnell. Via Talia Jane on Twitter.

February 29, 2024 06:11 EDT

Depending on who you ask, US Air Force Senior Airman Aaron James Bushnell performed an act of heroism or stupidity when he set himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC on February 25. He was protesting the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, a densely populated exclave of Palestine. Israel has laid siege to the territory since October, killing over 30,000 people. Bushnell had previously made his pro-Palestinian ideals known online, and he died shouting his belief in a “free Palestine.”

Bushnell spent that Sunday morning posting on Facebook. “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.” Then, as a form of protest, Bushnell doused and set himself aflame.

While it might be easy to dismiss Bushnell as a nutjob who wasn’t thinking straight, we are talking about an active-duty member of the Air Force with a focus on software information technology and development operations. What does it say about the armed forces if we disregard Bushnell as one of the crazies?

What drives someone to self-immolation?

This form of protest, while not new, is undeniably effective in getting attention, due to its gruesome nature and self-infliction. For the same reasons, it is quite rare. So, how does someone come to the conclusion that self-mutilation is the only option? Additionally, what does it mean when an active duty service member does it in full uniform?

Suicide as a modern protest tactic started in 1963 in South Vietnam. Originally a Buddhist act, it no longer seems to carry any religious significance. Those who partake in such an act “see themselves as part of a larger tradition of non-violent resistance, but that said, these are intensely violent acts they are perpetrating on their own bodies.”

While there isn’t a real connection in causes, religion or race in those who have chosen to take on this form of protest, their stories all end the same. Thus, it would not be that hard to believe there is a common thread through all of them. That leaves us simply with the question: How can someone do that to themself?

The simple answer is that they feel like there is nothing left to try. Essentially, a self-immolator feels utterly helpless in the face of injustice. The injustice is not necessarily one of great magnitude: In 2011, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire because the Tunisian government took away his vegetable cart and refused to give it back. They had thus taken away all that he believed he had in life. Other cases are like that of university student Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1969. Palach believed it to be the only form of protest left after a Soviet invasion crushed the 1968 Prague Spring.

While these two causes are vastly different, the outcomes were strikingly similar. In Tunisia, Bouazizi’s act led to a consensus among citizens that contributed to the government’s downfall. Some even credit Bouazizi for the 2011 Arab Spring. Likewise, Palach continues to be held as a martyr by Czechs and Slovaks today.

The common factor is a feeling of helplessness that leads to radicalization. Radicalization is the process by which an individual comes to adopt extreme views. A common misconception is that radicalized individuals become terrorists. They may, but they may also never act out violently. Or, they may harm themselves, as suicide protestors do. Radicalization is not currently well-understood. However, the process that takes an average Joe to a suicide protester displays a clear pattern in all of these cases.

There are many ways to look at radicalization, but since each of these cases involves a single person, it is best to look at this from a psychological perspective. A 2014 article published in Political Psychology proposed a radicalization/deradicalization model with the following three categories: motivation, ideology and the social process. Motivation is the initial personal catalyst that attracts a person to radical ideas. This leads to the ideology, which is a narrative that describes the grievance felt by a person/group, the culprit who supposedly inflected the grievance, and the proposed method of removing the culprit of the grievance. This narrative about the grievance and the culprit justifies the method. Finally, the social process provides a network and a group dynamic to individuals that share in the violence-justifying ideology.

How radicalization is at play in the context of the Gaza war

Bushnell’s motivation was his belief in his inability to do anything about Palestine as a US service member. The ideology was a radical form of Palestinian liberation, in which the culprit was both the Israeli government and the US government. The social process was largely an online community. Since the bombardment of Gaza has been so public and easy to witness on social media, netizens easily create echo chambers where they repeat messages about injustice.

It is important to note that the perceived grievance may very well be real. Social movements fighting for Palestinian liberation or other causes should not be conflated with radicalized groups. Yet, over time, prolonged exposure to stories and images of injustice can have a radicalizing effect on some people.

This is not the first case of self-harm in protest of Israel’s actions in Gaza, either. On December 1, 2023, a still-unidentified woman carrying a Palestinian flag was hospitalized in critical condition after setting herself on fire at the Israeli consulate in Atlanta, Georgia. We still do not know what became of her. 

At the present time, there is no telling what the lasting effects of these self-immolations will be. According to Oxford sociologist Michael Biggs,

Suicide protests are the most costly: the most extreme action often used as a kind of last resort. So of course most cases of suicide protests don’t generate a response and are quickly forgotten … However, we should never underestimate the ability of someone to use their own pain and their own suffering as a way of demonstrating the sincerity of their cause and demonstrating the extent to which they are experiencing injustice.

For now, there have been vastly different reactions to these suicides. Bushnell’s commander, Colonel Celina Noyes, stated simply, “When a tragedy like this occurs, every member of the Air Force feels it, We extend our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Senior Airman Bushnell.” The pro-Palestinian crowd has labeled Bushnell as a martyr and mourns him as one. Atlanta police called self-immolation an “act of extreme political protest.” Israeli Consul General in Atlanta Anat Sultan-Dadon called it an act of “hate and incitement toward Israel.” Veterans for Peace, an organization of US veterans, took another approach, asserting that “we could call our policymakers ‘madmen arsonists.’” How Americans and the world will look back on these events in the long term is yet to be seen.

Describing his own action beforehand, Bushnell wrote on social media, “I will no longer be complicit in genocide, 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.” 

Aaron Bushnell died Monday, Feb. 26. His final words were, “Free Palestine.”

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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