To Extinguish: On Aaron Bushnell and the Casualties of Nonviolence

I haven’t watched the livestream of US Senior Airman Aaron Bushnell’s self-immolation in front of the Israeli consulate in Washington, DC, on February 25, 2024, but many of us are familiar with reports and transcripts telling of a police officer, in attempts to save Bushnell’s life, yelling to another Embassy armed guard (who himself cannot tell if it’s a life he wants to save), “I don’t need guns; I need fire extinguishers!”

These details alone already prompt the question of what kind of war this is.

One week later, at time of writing, varied interpretations pipe across US progressive news and social media outlets. Some read the act through a distorted necropolitical lens—distorted in the sense that analysis originally offered to make sense of political conditions for Palestinians has been directly ascribed to Bushnell’s own positioning—and emphasize the foreclosure of normal channels of political agency that thus compel “an action borne of desperation, of the feeling that no other tactics, from writing and calling elected officials to attending protests to engaging in civil disobedience, have any ability to hasten the end of the stream of horrors we have seen in Gaza since October.” In some contrast, perhaps more effort has been placed in elevating Bushnell’s act as one of courageous sacrifice in Christian epistemologies and traditions of martyrdom. While recognition of valor isn’t absent in readings of Bushnell’s hopelessness, heroic narratives foreground his moral fortitude, bravery, and commitment with sharp righteousness that cuts through tragedy. Commonplace are also comparisons to the picture-seen-around-the-world of Thich Quang Duc self-immolating in Saigon in 1963; these comparisons come alongside critiques of what activists note as the disparate popular media attention given to each context and the flaws of current US news coverage questioning Bushnell’s mental health. Placing Bushnell’s act more specifically in the context of contemporary US social media cultures of crisis and protest, Deva Woodly makes a more original observation that Bushnell’s use of the livestream subverts the latter’s dominant deployments by broadcasting a dying body as challenge to, rather than victim of, state-sanctioned violence.

Across each of these modes of interpretation, offered in support of global activism to end this stage of genocide in Palestine, all progressive accounts take two basic premises for granted: that Bushnell’s was an act of nonviolence and, as journalist Kelly Hayes puts it directly, that “Aaron Bushnell died for Palestine.” The basic assumptions hence guiding my own meditation here are also twofold: first, that neither the meaning of nonviolence nor of Bushnell’s death are somehow self-explanatory, even if or as his own efforts were to make it appear as such; and, second, that sustained reflection on this event can serve to animate rather than memorialize the significance of Bushnell’s act, however ultimately unfixed. In these ways, my intentions are not to criticize Bushnell nor his actions so much as to move people away from explaining the latter through the lenses of traveling theories grounded in other social conditions—and instead, to exert more energy on making sense of the specificity of this event, in this context of war.

Contemplating Bushnell’s act in the distinctiveness of its own contours, then, calls us to interrogate what meaning can be made both in correspondence with and contrapuntal to the reasoning offered by Bushnell himself. My ultimate question resides in what meaning or problems can be discerned, what further statements can be made, if we understand his self-immolation to be not (simply) on behalf of Palestinians but on his own behalf, as an expression of his own unfreedoms. Coming to provisional terms with Bushnell’s self-immolation through this interrogative sieve requires us to consider violence beyond binary logics, whether instantiated as violence/nonviolence or, in Bushnell’s own language, of complicity/resistance; and to clarify certain contradictions of violence that, in turn, can help materialize rather than alienate progressive efforts to articulate collective (which is not to say monolithic) subjects of freedom, and specifically vis-à-vis current North American organizing to support Palestinian struggles. In these regards, and in the unceasing analysis, perhaps Bushnell’s show of self-sacrifice offers deeper lessons meant for people to realize in his wake: namely, that grappling with subjective and spatial differentiations—as they are connected as much as partitioned through governing regimes of violence—precisely constitutes the practical labors of freedom struggles everywhere.

 On Nonviolence

In thinking about the casualties of nonviolence, I mean to riff on both the fact of Bushnell’s death and on the casualness with which people have used the term “nonviolence” to describe it, as if the latter word or concept is somehow self-explanatory and objective in its meaning. Moreover, progressive attempts to contend specifically with an act of self-immolation, generally defined in their interpretations as “the most extreme form of nonviolent direct action,” analytically place Bushnell’s act within a genealogy that includes the self-immolations of Buddhist monks in South Vietnam during the mid-twentieth century, as well as of Mohamed Bouazizi and other Tunisians of his generation at the outset of Arab Spring at the turn of the twenty-first. More socially grounded responses, perhaps because they are offered by US military war veterans sensitive to some of the realities versus the mythos of Bushnell’s life, situate his act more explicitly and centrally as part of the American history of “a private citizen [i.e., Anglo American war protesters in the 1960s] giving up his or her life to try to stop the politicians or government from deciding what is best for other countries.” (Though it is interesting to note that an article making this explicit intervention is still introduced with a banner of collaged Vietnamese bodies.)

Indeed, distinguishing Bushnell’s particular context from those of protracted revolutionary nationalist struggles marks a difference not only in degree but in fundamental nature, to borrow Thich Nhat Hanh’s language on this very subject. While a sustained problematization is beyond the scope of my intentions here, I mean to offer merely a provisional outline of what makes Bushnell’s act different, as well as what difference the difference makes—for as the reporter who broke Bushnell’s story herself alludes, facile equivalences to substantively disparate histories overcompensate for a ubiquitous inability or refusal to engage even the most basic circumstances of Bushnell’s own case. And no doubt, “basic” also implies complex here, as Bushnell clearly did undergo rigorous training for the act, albeit not through Buddhist devotional praxis but through US military discipline; his mode of identification, both in speech and body adornment, deliberately signified this, and yet Bushnell also deliberately contradicted his visual presentation with verbal injunctions to interpret his act as one to free Palestine. And in another macabre inversion of insurgent contexts, in which the self-immolated body “speaks” as the voice for varied scales of collective being mangled by genocide, it is Bushnell’s “nation”—namely, US progressive activists—who accept responsibility to speak for him in their professed determination to amplify rather than silence the literal contents of his message.

All that given, then, there are two main pivots of dominant discourse on nonviolence that I want to interrupt and subvert elsewhere. First, just as the reification of nonviolence functions to justify genocide in the context of Palestine—sanctifying prescribed tactics while distorting and declaring war on others—the secularization of nonviolence also has the inverse effect of disarticulating specific social praxes, understood or enacted under the heading of nonviolence, from their particular epistemological and geopolitical foundations. The historical impact of this latter decoherence manifests in the hegemonic progressive common sense that Bushnell’s act was definitionally nonviolent, since it was motivated by the intention to preserve the sanctity of human life at the cost of his own and, as such, also demonstrated Bushnell’s exceptional humanity in the face of widespread incivility. On this point, insofar as hegemonic North American understandings of nonviolence are critically derived from Christianized transpositions of Gandhian philosophy, Faisal Devji has demonstrated that, in Gandhi’s own terms and grounded context, nonviolence does not imply a simple negation of violence but its fullest inhabitation. From this perspective, it is not elevated regard but only refusal of the assumption of life’s inherent sanctity that can provide an opening for nonviolence. In other words, Devji argues that, for Gandhi, “only by disdaining life could it be saved”; and furthermore, that contending with Gandhi’s concerns as political rather than humanitarian—focused on the moral relationship between enemies and not “what the Mahatma considered the deeply suspect ideal of life as an absolute value”—requires us to reject the very notion of inalienable rights, as Gandhi himself did in 1947. And while I will, for the moment, defer questions about the entanglements and distinctions between Brahminical and “engaged Buddhist” nonviolent praxes, for current purposes it suffices to clarify the stakes of erasing such intellectual history from American political consciousness: for progressive interpretations of Bushnell’s act as nonviolent are directly correlated with their demands for cease fire, humanitarian aid, better US foreign policy, and liberal rights for Palestinians as well as Israelis. While I am not necessarily objecting to these demands, it also makes a difference to recognize that in the Gandhian terms of nonviolence that progressives often explicitly valorize, such interventions are ultimately part of the apparatuses of violence rather than their transgression.

Secondly, then, interpretations rooted in hyper-abstracted presumptions of human sanctity (and their implied universality of the human) create theoretical conditions in which, in seemingly counter-intuitive ways, Bushnell’s body could be so easily and readily interchanged with a child’s body in Gaza—or that of Thich Quang Duc, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tibetan monk, a climate activist, and the list could go on. That is, this conjuncture instantiates a contradiction in which the signification of Bushnell’s self-immolation relies on the visuality of Bushnell as an American soldier in his own body, on the one hand; and on the other, on the deliberate occlusion of his suffering precisely as an American soldier in his own body—instead, his burning body transmogrified as the suffering of Palestinians. While this humanitarian gesture thus appears as one of moral retribution or justice, ethical grounds for intersubjective relation are actually subverted rather than created by the abstraction of Bushnell that simultaneously abstracts Palestine in order to allow for their rhetorical equivalence. Furthermore, the occlusion of Bushnell’s own suffering is affected precisely through the shadow of his self-professed “complicity with genocide” that, in this binary logic of complicity/resistance, implies an absolute and individuated culpability that must be absolved (an ironic twist, given that in the Vietnamese context with which Bushnell’s is so often conflated, self-immolation is rendered meaningful through onto-epistemological assumptions of subjectivity as contingent and relationally-articulated, not atomized and categorical). In this instance, the very claim and shame of complicity thus produces rather than challenges it—both in the immediate sense of further mystifying illusions of generalizable consent and consensus, and in the grander sense of re-inscribing the seeming omnipotence of whiteness as onto-epistemology. Perhaps most disturbingly, Bushnell’s very act manifests how the only seemingly possible means to fulfill the desire for innocence is to extinguish from this earth. And yet, even now, in my efforts to show respect for the deceased by taking seriously his intervention, the conceit of innocence still falls apart.

On Cause of Death

Writing this feels increasingly uncomfortable, as it should. It is neither within my intention nor my reach to name Bushnell’s suffering. (Just as I have no means either to fathom the suffering in Palestine—a fact that so much of North American activism avoids with chants like the one that silenced me at a rally last month: “In the millions! In the billions! We are all Palestinians!”) I can only seek to name the broader (anti)social conditions delimiting the question of what could possibly trouble someone understood to represent US ideals and inherit the spoils of its wars; indeed, whose reproduction presumably defines the raison d’être of America’s very existence as a nation-state? This question must be asked if anyone hopes to make sense of Bushnell’s act in a way that can establish means for solidarity (or its aspiration) disarticulated from delusions of equivalence, as those such as Robin Kelley, Fred Moten, and Stefano Harney have urged specifically in the context of Palestinian struggle. In my attempt to address this problem then, I will offer just a few concluding thoughts.

At the most direct scale, we might consider Bushnell’s self-immolation as an expression of his explosive realization that the world he lived in cannot support life or ease death, in the final analysis. At the same time, the ambivalence of his message, delivered through the mediation of Palestine as sign in conjunction with his own body as object, leaves dangerously open the potential to reproduce violence he explicitly intended to disrupt: that is, the preservation of private citizens, refortification of an international rule of law and order, and regimes of sovereignty that advocate for Gaza but ultimately advance the project of zionism. These properties composing the universe of white being persist in delimiting not only the literal denotation of Bushnell’s message but its subsequent metaphorical detonation by many of his supporters. And if it is true that Bushnell assumed the omnipotence of white ontology, by default or what Ruthie Gilmore calls “emplotment,” then this also means he was operating with a collapsed sense of what other possibilities existed for him to become, in relation to the myriad breathing socialities the rest of us still struggle every day to remake—and not in romantic movements of virtue but in struggle with our own violence, the violence each of us carries.

In our own various capacities, we know that to bear witness to history is a privilege and severity we cannot accept lightly, and Bushnell served in this role through the end. If he was overburdened by the weight of it all, it must be because he was already holding too much, and there were no people or resources in his society capable of abolishing the oppressions it creates. On this note, defending the honor of a junior officer, retired US Army colonel and former diplomat Ann Wright asks why derogatory commentaries framing Bushnell’s death as a suicide have not come alongside public concern for the normalized phenomenon of suicide among US war veterans discarded by the government after serving their time. Beyond the atomization of mental health, such are the basic circumstances of Bushnell’s own unfreedom, a particular configuration of organized abandonment produced through the handshake rather than the heel of imperialist democracy, delivered in the service of a genocidal political-economy that connects us all through fatal antagonisms. In this sense and in any case, Bushnell’s own condition does not need to be equivalent to Palestinian genocide for it to matter, and indeed, it cannot be equivalent if any of us are to understand ourselves in relation. To recognize, as Bushnell did, that Palestine is at the center of the most consequential global anticolonial and antifascist struggles of our times cannot mean, as Moten insists, that Palestinians be made to bear the weight of the entire planet—or on the same token, that those assumed to enjoy the returns of Zionism accept the weight of that promise either. My aspiration here has been motivated by the aim to stop those latter maneuvers as affected precisely through assertions of solidarity: a cessation that renews possibilities to ask how all things are interconnected in striated relations of power, war, and genocide and to pursue the political work of transforming (not reforming) those ties that bind.

To close by way of coming back to precedents forged in an earlier revolutionary period, I am reminded of Daniel Berrigan’s 1972 “Letter to the Weathermen,” addressed to the organization of young Anglo-American anti-imperialists experimenting with tactics appropriated or adapted from Black and Third World insurgents. Dealing with religious sanction and federal incarceration himself for his ideological and physical attacks on the apparatuses of US empire, Berrigan writes to this new generation of activists:

Violence as legitimate means: I have a great fear of American violence, not only in the military and diplomacy, in economics, in industry and advertising; but also in here, in me, up close, among us. On the other hand, I must say, I have very little fear, from firsthand experience, of the violence of the Vietcong or Panthers (I hesitate to use the word violence), for their acts come from the proximate threat of extinction, from being invariably put on the line of self-defense. But the same cannot be said of us and our history. We stand outside the culture of these others, no matter what admiration or fraternity we feel with them; we are unlike them, we have other demons to battle.

May those for whom Bushnell spoke come to battle rather than displace those demons by which anti-imperialists from John Brown to Daniel Berrigan died, extinguishing not only with clarity but in brutally wrought communion.

Sharon Luk

Sharon Luk is an associate professor and Tier II Canada Research Chair in Geographies of Racialization at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. She is author of The Life of Paper: Letters and a Poetics of Living Beyond Captivity (University of California Press, 2018) and numerous articles. She is currently working on a book manuscript, “Sea of Fire: An Abolitionist Inquiry into the Making of Nonviolence,” that recontextualizes dominant notions of nonviolence in relation to evolving meanings and movements of the global South.