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The Student News Site of St. Edward's University

Hilltop Views

The Student News Site of St. Edward's University

Hilltop Views

OPINION: Centering the conversation around Aaron Bushnell’s mental health is a red herring

Hailey Womack / Hilltop Views
Thousands marched in Austin to protest the war in Gaza. Multiple signs conveyed the rising death toll in Palestine that recently surpassed 30,000.

Twenty-five-year-old serviceman Aaron Bushnell stood outside the Israeli embassy in Washington D.C. on Feb. 25 and lit himself on fire in protest of the bombing and aid blockade in Gaza. His self-immolation was streamed live on Twitch, and he gave a final testimony: “I am an active duty member of the United States Air Force. And I will no longer be complicit to 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. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal.” He yelled “free Palestine” until he succumbed to the flames. Bushnell died later that evening. 

Critics have been eager to claim Bushnell’s self-immolation will inspire “copy cats,” paralleling his protest to suicide. His death has become the subject of cruel japes on the social media platform, X (formerly known as Twitter). A fabricated screenshot from Bushnell’s Reddit account that attributed his pro-Palestinian beliefs to antisemitism circulated social media and has since been proven false. Critics say speaking about his death glorifies suicide and his display is just the result of mental illness. These claims are absurd, given Bushnell’s protest has garnered international attention. He live-streamed his protest in his fatigues and clearly stated his intentions and relation to the government, knowing the world would not be able to look away from a U.S. airman self-immolating outside a foreign embassy. 

Bushnell was raised in the Community of Jesus, a fringe religious group that has been likened to a cult, located in Orleans, Massachusetts. He left his strict, religious upbringing to join the Air Force in 2020, relocating to San Antonio at Lackland Air Force Base. Stuart Rowe, a friend of Bushnell, said he “loved hard and quickly.” He was described as a loyal friend who struggled with his place in the Air Force. Rowe mused that he “felt the weight of his uniform—that of the United States, a major stakeholder in the war—and the urgency of the cause.”

His death made waves across the world, sparking conversations about protest, the ceaseless bombing of Gaza and the United States’ monetary involvement. Since the display, the conversation has pivoted toward Bushnell’s mental health. A public incident report by the Metropolitan Police Department stated that Bushnell was “exhibiting signs of mental distress.” Lupe Barboza, a friend of Bushnell, said “he was very thoughtful. Everything he would say was very deliberate, he put a lot of thought into it” and that he “didn’t do it for attention, or to be valorized as a hero. He just wanted people to act.” 

After the attack on Israel on October 7th — in which 1,160 Israelis were killed and 240 hostages were taken, 105 having since been released — 30,000 Palestinians have been killed. In addition to the immense death-toll, the Israel-Hamas war is one of the first to have a wide broadcast across all social media platforms. Documentation is coming from journalists, doctors and civilians who are trapped in the strip with nowhere to go. It seems natural to feel distressed when witnessing such mass death and gruesome images. 

Self-immolation has a long history as a form of political protest. This tactic has been used to protest war, foreign occupation and climate change. Bushnell is not the first person to self-immolate in protest of what’s happening in Gaza. In December 2023, an unidentified woman self-immolated with a Palestinian flag in front of the Israeli consulate in Atlanta. Many  details of this incident were not released to the public, including her identity, no doubt to contain the impact her protest would have made. 

Massive protests have been held across the globe, directed against the violence in Gaza and condemning U.S. involvement. Time and time again, President Biden has reaffirmed his support for Israel, despite knowing that a permanent ceasefire and de-escalation of violence is becoming a more popular stance among Americans. As the President of the United States, his choice to ignore peaceful protests (i.e. marches and boycotts) opens the door for protests like Bushnell’s. One way or another, the people will be heard.

The conviction one must feel about an injustice to burn their body is great. It is one of the most agonizing things a human being can experience; I cannot imagine doing it on purpose. Bushnell spoke with clarity on his final stream and made his mission clear. To have the conversation about his mental health is an attempt to delegitimize his protest and disrespect his sacrifice and legacy. I sincerely doubt that Bushnell wanted people to follow in his footsteps and light themselves on fire. But, he was counting on everyone watching to make their distress, anger and disbelief agents of change.

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    RubenMar 19, 2024 at 6:33 pm

    Hey the Werther effect is real whether you like it or not, or whether this man had the right intentions or not. Stop being careless with people’s mental health.