Tarik Cyril Amar – Burning with Shame

We will all come to remember Aaron Bushnell as a true American hero.

Tarik Cyril Amar (@TarikCyrilAmar) is a historian from Germany, currently at Koç University, Istanbul, expert on Ukraine, Russia, and Europe, and the author of “The Paradox of Ukrainian Lviv. A Borderland City between Stalinists, Nazis, and Nationalists.”

Cross-posted from Tarik Cyril Amar’s substack


Aaron Bushnell, an American air force soldier, was only 25 years old when he committed suicide in perhaps the most painful manner imaginable, by setting himself aflame and burning to death. From the moment he poured a flask of accelerant over himself and then lit his lighter to the moment he died from his injuries seven hours later, he must have suffered excruciating pain. I am no doctor; I can only hope that he was given the most powerful painkillers available throughout his last hours.

Bushnell deliberately entered this hell on earth to sacrifice himself for fellow human beings being put through a hell of their own. He burned himself in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington as, in his own words, an “act of extreme protest” against the genocide committed by Israel against the Palestinians in Gaza. He also explained that he did not want to be complicit in this crime, a reference to the fact that his country, the USA, its government, and armed forces are complicit, as is the West in general.

Please note a simple fact: Bushnell was an American. The USA has a terrible tradition of gun massacres and is awash in firearms. Bushnell, moreover, was a trained soldier. Yet he did not even try to kill or injure anyone but himself. It is true that a security agent at the Israeli embassy had nothing better to do than point a gun at a man crumpled on the ground and clearly burning to death. But that was not only a gesture of supreme inhumanity (the kind of thing one learns in apartheid Israel); it also made especially little sense as Bushnell was precisely not threatening others. His was an act of pure self-sacrifice.

Need it be said that in all its extraordinary, almost incomprehensible bravery, Bushnell’s way of protest is not for emulation? Then consider it said.

But bear one simple comparison in mind: There are many ways of resisting injustice short of suicide. If you are, for instance, an academic worried about tenure or about your department politics (that is, senior colleagues abusing their positions), publishing networks, future job applications, and your next fellowships (in case you have tenure already), or if you are just anybody else who puts their CV and career above solidarity with the Palestinian victims of a genocide now in its fifth month, Bushnell has put you – yes, you personally – to shame.

And if you still don’t feel enough shame to finally at least speak up, then you probably would have kept your mouth shut in Nazi Germany as well. If you can’t learn from Bushnell’s courage, then at least learn a little from his honesty, and face who you really are: a subject incapable of open rebellion even when your soul depends on it. Own it.

Bushnell was clear about what he wanted to achieve: To break through the walls of lies and silence that have shielded Israel’s genocide. That is why he took care to film his protest. And, unlike an earlier self-immolator – a woman whose name we are not even allowed to know, but who we should remember no less than him – he succeeded. He made the news. Not for himself, but for the Palestinian victims of the Israeli genocide for whom he sacrificed his life.

This victory – that is the word – against immense odds is already having predictable consequences. Now that his act and his message are out, he will be smeared mercilessly. He will be depicted as insane, as a radical (as if being radically against slaughtering children were anything but a virtue), and, of course, an all-purpose weirdo.

The pictures we will be shown of him will be selected to make him look gauche (the way most of us actually look on most of our pictures.) His video statement, showing a man of steely determination and extraordinary self-control in the face of a horrible death, and then his burning himself while using his last breath to shout “Free Palestine” not once but again and again will be shown as little as possible.

We will be told about the fact that he was an anarchist, as if that were a crime or a sign of lunacy. (No, it’s not.) He will be slandered by claiming he was “pro-Hamas” (let’s bypass for now how odd that is as an accusation, actually) – and those he was in contact with will be smeared in the same manner so that he and they can be smeared together. His short life will be scoured with a rigor hardly applied to the USA’s elite for all and every detail that could make him look not quite “normal.” Indeed, the flagship publication Washington Post has set the tone already, insinuating that Bushnell’s growing up in a “religious compound” diminishes either his sanity or the validity of his protest.

Yet, in the end, none of this will work. And here’s why: Bushnell was normal, in the very best sense of the word. He had the normal compassion to find a genocide unbearable and not accept any rationalizations or lies about it (“But Hamas!”, “self-defense!”, “It’s all so complicated!”). He was more normal by far than the 15% of Americans who still believe that Israel has “not gone far enough” or the 31% who believe that it has been murderous to a “just about right” extent. Bushnell was too normal to accept a ravingly anomalous world.

Bushnell’s fate shows just how decrepit the USA now is as a political civilization: It is a country where sociopaths, psychopaths, and the clearly senescent compete for the presidency. And while the incumbent Joe Biden is Israel’s worst and indispensable accomplice in the Gaza Genocide, his rivals show not the slightest sign of being any different. Yet those who, with a few more years of experience, would be genuine “presidential material,” are literally burning with shame over what America does – and therefor is – now.

If – admittedly, a big “if” – the USA will ever recover from its current, abysmal state, then its citizens will come to publicly honor Aaron Bushnell as one of their greatest, bravest heroes.

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