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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Adam Gabbatt

‘In America, it’s viewed as too extreme’: self-immolation as protest – and sacrifice

a memorial for Aaron Bushnell
A memorial for Aaron Bushnell in Chicago on Thursday. Photograph: Jacek Boczarski/Anadolu via Getty Images

When Aaron Bushnell set himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy in Washington last weekend, in protest against the situation in Palestine, he became an international story.

An active-duty member of the US air force, Bushnell livestreamed his death, from the moment he said he would “no longer be complicit in genocide” to the moment he poured fluid over himself and burst into flames.

“Free Palestine,” Bushnell shouted, the video shows, as he burned.

In the media, Bushnell’s death prompted news stories, thinkpieces and internal newsroom conversations about how to cover self-immolation. Online, people speculated about Bushnell’s mental health and his background, and questioned his motives.

Amid the noise, one thing was clear: it got people talking, in a way that other, multi-person protests have sometimes failed to do.

“Self-immolation has a tremendous effect in its moment. That’s why you’re talking with me, that’s why there are all these stories about this,” said Indira Palacios-Valladares, a political science professor at Missouri State University whose research has focused on protest movements.

“It’s very dramatic. Death by fire … people don’t die immediately. And it’s terrible to watch.”

The death of Bushnell, 25, came three months after someone set themselves on fire outside the Israeli consulate in what police said was “an act of extreme political protest”: a Palestinian flag was found at the scene. That person remains in a critical condition, Atlanta police said. The story received far less attention, perhaps because the identity of the protester has not been released.

“Who makes the sacrifice is important,” Palacios-Valladares said. People directly affected by a political situation or conflict tend to be given more credence – as in the case of Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who self-immolated in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1963.

But beyond that, the act of self-immolation is just the next, perhaps most desperate, act of protest.

“We’re always surprised by this, that these things are so dramatic, but in fact, they’re an exaggeration of something that is intrinsic to any protest: that protesters always put their body at risk. When you go and protest in the street, you’re going to be beaten up maybe. You may even be killed, you may go to jail,” Palacios-Valladares said.

“So setting yourself on fire, or for that matter, hunger strikes, are an extreme version of that. This is intrinsic to every protest, the idea that you put your body at risk.”

Press coverage treatment of self-immolation in the west has not always been generous. In Bushnell’s case, attention has been drawn to his upbringing in a religious compound in Massachusetts, and rightwing, pro-Israel news outlets have suggested, without evidence, that Bushnell may have had mental health issues.

That’s a common theme, said Michael Biggs, an associate professor of sociology at Oxford University who has studied the history of self-immolation.

“There are people who aren’t sympathetic, who just interpret this as kind of crazy and mad, [who say]: ‘He’s clearly mentally deranged.’

“And we find that is the way that regimes and political systems want to discredit self-immolators: they’ll call them psychologically disturbed, or crazy. So it really is that reaction depends on whether you’re sympathetic to the cause.”

That reaction, and how seriously a person is taken, can determine the impact of self-immolation. That was seen when Norman Morrison, a 31-year-old father of three, set himself on fire outside the Pentagon in 1965, in protest against the Vietnam war.

“The impact [of Morrison’s death] in the US was mixed. Some in the media suggested that Norman must have been insane,” the Guardian wrote in 2010, after interviewing Morrison’s wife and children.

The response was very different in Vietnam, however.

“I think in America, it’s viewed as too extreme. And so ironically, Norman Morrison had far more adulation or praise from Vietnam, from the Vietnamese,” Biggs said.

“He was on a postage stamp in Vietnam, children in Vietnam learned about him, learned poems about him. So his action had a huge impact in Vietnam, more than it did in America because even the anti-war movement distanced themselves from his actions.”

Part of that is cultural, said Uyen Nguyen, a professor of history at Texas Tech University. Nguyen grew up in Ho Chi Minh City blocks from where Thich Quang Duc died.

“Usually, what you see in eastern society is [that] we are more looking toward a collectiveness. We don’t view ourselves as a special individual or focus on the small self, but you look [beyond yourself], to an extended family,” Nyugen said.

“So when you think about that act of self-immolation, in the case of Thich Quang Duc, it was like a self-sacrifice for the sake of other people, for the extended family.”

In that case, the protest worked, Biggs said: his self-immolation, and that of other monks, galvanized protesters and helped to discredit the South Vietnamese government, which was overthrown in a US-backed coup later the same year.

A photograph of Thic Quang Duc, taken by the AP reporter Malcolm Browne, won the world press photo of the year. But in the modern day, self-immolation frequently raises questions in newsrooms about how to report death. Standard practice in reporting cases of suicide is to not describe the cause of death.

Studies have found that suicide can have a “contagion effect”, and media reports on the death by suicide of celebrities and reports which detail how suicide was committed have led to spikes in suicide. When reporting self-immolation, however, it is impossible to separate the method of death from the incident – and to try to parse the relationship between self-immolation and suicide.

“When we think of suicide, it’s like your life is so terrible that you cannot continue. This is not about that, it’s about doing it for others. So in that sense it’s more than suicide. It’s suicide, but it’s not suicide – in the sense that it’s sacrificial. It’s a sacrifice for others, for a community, for a cause,” Palacios-Valladares said.

Although there has been scorn from some on the right, that has not been the case on the left.

Owen Jones, the leftwing commentator, posted that Bushnell “died because he had too much humanity for a world run by people who don’t have any”.

“Rest in power Aaron Bushnell,” Jill Stein, the presidential candidate for the Green party, posted on X.

“May his sacrifice deepen our commitment to stop genocide now.”

Whether that happens remains to be seen, as does how Bushnell is remembered. Thich Quang Duc is honored by a bronze statue in a park at the corner where he died, and is revered by many in Vietnam, Nguyen said.

“Self-immolation, in his case, was not self-destruction,” Nguyen said.

“Actually, you could argue that it is construction. Construction in that you destroy your small self, your humble, impermanent being, so you can construct something long-lasting, something good for other people.”

• This article was amended on 5 March 2024. Aaron Bushnell set himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy, not outside the Pentagon.

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