Tue. Jul 23rd, 2024

CONTENT WARNING: This article mentions self-immolation and suicide.

Photo: Protestor at Aaron Bushnell Vigil in front of Israeli embassy. Photo via Flickr by Elvert Barnes, CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED.

On Sunday, Feb. 25, Aaron Bushnell, a 25-year-old who was an active-duty U.S. Air Force member, lit himself on fire outside of the Israeli Embassy in Washington D.C. in protest of what is happening in Gaza. In a gruesome video, Bushnell stated that he would “no longer be complicit in genocide,” referring to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. After pouring flammable liquid on himself, which he kept in a water bottle, he then used a lighter to set himself ablaze. As the flames grew and spread over his body, Bushnell could be heard repeatedly yelling “Free Palestine” before falling silent. 

Self-immolation, or suicide by fire, is by no means a new form of protest. In fact, this has been used several times to protest government operations, most famously in the Vietnam War, where almost 100 people resorted to self-immolation. Due to the excruciating pain and almost certain death caused by this, it is seen as the most extreme form of protest, where many are seen as martyrs. 

Obviously, news media outlets were quick to report on Bushnell’s death and it made international headlines. While it is beneficial that they cover this story, the narrative that they used sheds light on their agenda and alignment in this conflict. MSNBC stated in their coverage that Aaron Bushnell lit himself on fire “in protest of the Israel-Hamas war.” While this may initially seem innocuous, this framing is utterly wrong and whitewashes Bushnell’s true intent. Bushnell never mentioned Israel, Hamas or a war in his video. He made it very clear that what he was protesting was the genocide of the Palestinian people. In another example, CNN posted an article a day after the incident titled, “US airman dies after setting himself on fire outside Israeli Embassy in Washington.” This title leaves the reason for his immolation ambiguous and leaves the reader to make assumptions. In yet another scenario, The New York Times covered the story as follows, “Man Dies After Setting Himself on Fire Outside Israeli Embassy in Washington, Air Force Says.” This is by far the worst title I have seen on the subject. Not only does it leave out Bushnell’s name, but it doesn’t say he was in the Air Force, and, like the others, leaves out the reason for his protest. In all these examples, this should not be the case. Each of these outlets makes mention of his video and even pulls parts from it. As previously mentioned, Bushnell made clear in the video who he was and what he was protesting. 

To compare this to a different but similar story, on Oct. 2, 2020, Irina Slavina, a Russian journalist, set herself on fire to protest the Russian government. Her last post on Facebook stated, “I ask you to blame the Russian Federation for my death.” This story also got global coverage, and US news sources covered this as Slavina wanted. The New York Times headlined their article, “Russian Journalist Sets Herself on Fire and Dies, Blaming Government.” While the name is once again omitted, they have both her occupation and her reason for protest in the title. Though not every news source previously mentioned covered this story, the differing headlines speak for themselves. Obviously, The New York Times, as well as the other media outlets, are American sources who typically align with the national agenda. This would include, in these situations, being anti-Russian government and pro-Israel. While I am not here to justify and side with Russia, it is important to call out atrocities when they occur, even if they are committed by allies. Since Oct. 7, over 30,000, or 0.15% of the Gazan population, has been killed by Israeli forces according to NPR. These forces are backed and funded by the United States, and as such, both the media and the government are hesitant to call out or denounce these brutal killings. According to AP News, as recently as Thursday, Feb. 29, 115 Palestinians were killed and hundreds more wounded while waiting for delivery aid in Gaza. While Israel denied this, stating that their troops only fired when they felt threatened by the crowd after a stampede for food broke out, health officials say that over 80% of the wounded had been struck by gunfire. Despite events such as these, the American media will continue to back Israel and sweep anything that does not fit their agenda, like the truth of Bushnell’s motive, under the rug. With this apparent, it is important that one monitors and checks for biases in the news they consume. 

While this was not an act prompted by mental illness, as some media outlets have suggested, I want to make clear that I am against this form of protest and suicide in general. If you or someone you know is suffering from suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the appropriate resources. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 988, to contact the National Crisis Text line, text “Home” to 741 741. If you are feeling depressed, anxious, or lonely and want to talk, you can call Chester County’s warm line at 1-866-846-2722. 


Geoff Soland is a third-year History major with minors in Journalism and Museum Studies. GS1003383@wcupa.edu

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