Self-immolation is the most extreme form of nonviolent protest


By Rowan Sporte Ehn and Amna Saeed-Kothe

Varying forms of political mass protest–including marches, strikes, rallies, walk-outs and sit-ins–have been used for centuries to express opposition to abhorrent ideologies and policies. However, a notable and extreme form of individual, nonviolent protest emerged more recently (for the Western world), due in part to the development of modern mass media. Self-immolation, or the act of setting oneself on fire as an act of political protest, was first recorded in 1963 when a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc lit himself on fire in the streets of Saigon to protest anti-Buddhist discrimination by his own government. This act caught the attention of the local news and soon the story spread, catching the attention of media outlets globally. That image of the “Burning Monk”, by journalist Malcolm Browne, went viral in a time well before viral social media posts were a thing; President John F. Kennedy was quoted as having said that “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”

Since then, self-immolations have occurred as a relatively rare and supreme form of public protest, an extreme act of personal outrage and revolt, the ultimate sacrifice made to awaken moral conscience and humanity to unbearable injustices, calamities and aggressions. Historically, in terms of political protests, acts of self-immolation have been recorded in 1965 outside the Pentagon in opposition to the Vietnam War, in the 1970s in Europe to protest the Soviet Union, since 2009 by many Tibetans to protest Chinese rule, in 2010 in Tunisia where it sparked the Arab Spring uprising, and in 2020 when a Ukrainian man protested the military actions of the Ukrainian government. This tactic has also been used in 2018 and in 2022 by climate advocates within the US trying to bring attention to the existential threat of climate change.

Last month, self-immolation was once again used in extreme protest. On February 26th, 2024, Aaron Bushnell – a 25 year old, active duty member of the US Air Force – set himself on fire, in full uniform, outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. to protest US complicity in what the International Court of Justice said may plausibly be called Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza. Thanks to his meticulous planning, the live stream of his protest spelled out his motivation clearly to the world – “I will no longer be complicit in genocide. I’m about to engage in an extreme act of protest, but compared to what people are 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.” As flames begin to engulf his body, Aaron can be heard repeatedly yelling “Free Palestine” until he is physically unable to continue vocalizing.

Aaron Bushnell, a young man of sound enough mind and body to be enrolled in active duty service to his country, felt called to give the ultimate sacrifice. Though many in the mainstream have subsequently chosen to cast aspersions at his well precedented act of protest, call into question his mental stability and tried to paint him as misguided, Aaron chose the path of self-immolation in order to shed light on “what our ruling class has decided will be normal” – the slaughter, in gross violation of international and humanitarian law, of the occupied, besieged and intentionally starved civilian population of Gaza – 31,000 + souls, of which 13,000 + were children. It is interesting that no one finds cause to question the mental stability of those who propagandize, carry out and lend moral and financial support to the aggression that intentionally targets children and had successfully killed off more children in the 4 MONTHS since October 2023 than all the children killed globally in conflicts over the past 4 YEARS, combined! Aaron’s sacrifice cannot be maligned and the sacrifices of all the martyrs cannot be in vain. He died to bring attention to the atrocities being committed in Palestine and it is our job to continue his fight to end these injustices.

Remembering and honoring those whose lives have been sacrificed at the altar of unchecked human aggression is one small way of continuing Aaron’s fight. On March 9th, 2024, Massachusetts Peace Action members organized and, in collaboration with Jewish Voice for Peace, Veterans for Peace (Smedley Butler Brigade), Alliance for Water Justice in Palestine and Healthcare Workers for Palestine, hosted an interfaith candlelight vigil at Park Street Station, Boston in honor of Aaron Bushnell and the more than 30,000 Palestinian martyrs. In a reflective and somber atmosphere illuminated by the soft glow of candles, 150, or so, folks came together that evening to be in community, to share our collective outrage and sorrow over humanity lost, and to build hope and resolve for continuing the hard work of waging peace in a world that too often resorts to tactics involving weapons and war. Our panel of speakers included representatives of the Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Quaker and Buddhist faith traditions, Palestinians in diaspora, anti-war veterans and the Indigenous Peoples of this land, whose own history is mirrored in the decades long struggle of the Palestinian people for self-determination, independent statehood and return of the refugees to their homes.

In one of Aaron Bushnell’s last social media posts he asks this question: “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.”

What are you doing?

Rowan Sporte Ehn is a MAPA intern on co-op from Northeastern University. They are a member of the “Twin Threats”/CANDU and Gaza campaigns as well as the Racial Justice and Public Engagement & Movement Building working groups.

Amna Saeed-Kothe is a member of MAPA’s Gaza Israel Peace Campaign.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.