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Not All Self-Immolations Are Made Equal

(Photo by Fatih Aktas/Anadolu via Getty Images)

“Aaron Bushnell was not a hero or a martyr akin to the self-immolators of anti-imperial conflicts past; he was likely a mentally ill, terminally online man in his mid-20s who was in a lot of pain that he transposed onto a conflict halfway around the world that in no way personally affected him.”

On February 25, 2024, 25-year-old United States Air Force serviceman Aaron Bushnell shocked people around the United States and the world when he doused himself in an accelerant and set himself on fire outside of the Israeli embassy in Washington D.C. This was done ostensibly to show his love for Palestinians and his desire for them to be free (indeed, he screamed “Free Palestine!” repeatedly as the flames ate away at him). The video, if one can stomach it, is a punch in the gut for anyone with a shred of conscience but not for the reasons being discussed in some corners. In many at-this-point-predictable cases, figures such as Cornel West, Chris Hedges, and Jill Stein came out to praise Bushnell’s actions as an “example,” “a religious act “of “divine violence,” and an “extraordinary sacrifice,” respectively. Senator Bernie Sanders offered a few words for the public suicide, stating that, “it [spoke] to the depths of despair that so many people are feeling now about the horrific humanitarian disaster taking place in Gaza.” In general, there was no shortage of reverence from much of the self-described “anti-imperialist” (or “anti-Zionist”) Left for what Bushnell did. But his actions must have also rung familiar to anyone who has despaired at his own existence but decided not to go through with what many see as the logical conclusion of such despair. 

Despite what publications such as The Nation have said, we have no reason to “take Aaron Bushnell at his word (and deed),” much less accept the historical invocations of other self-immolators as a reason to see moral nobility in Bushnell’s actions. The truth is that Bushnell was a young man mired in First World ennui that can only be cured by replacing one rabidly religious belief (namely, the Christian one from his upbringing) with another cloaked in the guise of a secular concern for human rights. Bushnell was not a hero or a martyr akin to the self-immolators of anti-imperial conflicts past; he was likely a mentally ill, terminally online man in his mid-20s who was in a lot of pain that he transposed onto a conflict halfway around the world that in no way personally affected him. This, among many other reasons, is central to why those tempted to compare Bushnell’s actions to those of other self-immolators in history ought to reconsider. 

The most famous self-immolation of the 20th century was that of Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk living in South Vietnam who, like many Buddhists in that country in the 1960s, watched with growing alarm at the persecution of Buddhists at the hands of the American-backed government of Ngô Đình Diệm. This was significant because Diệm was part of the Catholic minority that held most of the power in South Vietnam. When this fact was combined with what was known as the “Buddhist crisis,” it was not difficult to conclude that there was a true, arguably impassable rift between the two religious communities. According to historian Edward Miller, “the crisis emerged from a clash of modernizing visions,” with the Buddhist nationalist vision predating the Diệm government by several decades. In addition to this clash of nationalist visions, Miller explains, “The protests also reflected growing Buddhist anxieties about the Diệm government’s nation-building agenda for South Vietnam. By the time the crisis began, Buddhist leaders had concluded that this agenda (which Diệm referred to as the ‘Personalist Revolution’) was incompatible with their plans to realize Vietnam’s destiny as a ‘Buddhist nation’.”

This suggests that the discontent had less to do with the West’s continued interference (and, indeed, the Buddhist nationalists’ main contention was that Vietnamese culture had been corrupted by centuries of Chinese Confucian and Taoist influence) and more to do with a typical battle of nationalist interpretations (one could even compare it to the more substantive versions American Left vs Right debates). Being a part of this movement and feeling like he and the Buddhist community in South Vietnam had run out of options, thanks to the Diệm government’s strength derived from Western backing, Quảng Đức made the decision to set himself on fire on June 11, 1963, with very little thought of how it would be perceived in the West. Quảng Đức wrote a letter in which we find his last words. He lays out quite clearly where his mind was and the true desperation he was experiencing living under the Diem government: 

“Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngô Đình Diệm to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.”

American correspondents had been told that something was going to happen that day near the Presidential Palace, and a few showed up, including New York Times journalist David Halberstam. Quảng Đức was among a large group of monks and nuns in a procession that had begun at a pagoda and made its way to the intersection of Phan Đình Phùng Boulevard and Lê Văn Duyệt Street. When they arrived, Quảng Đức sat in the lotus position on a cushion he had brought and closed his eyes as another monk poured five gallons of gasoline onto him. Quảng Đức then recited a devotional to Amitābha Buddha, before striking a match and setting himself on fire. In his 1965 book The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam During the Kennedy Era, Halberstam recalled the haunting scene as follows:

“I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think…As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”

The documentation of Quảng Đức’s act—namely the Associated Press’ Malcolm Browne’s photograph—captured the attention of the West, particularly among the anti-interventionists. Quảng Đức’s burning body would become its own sort of signifier of radical chic in the same way that the stylized image of Che Guevara would become, with probably the most famous incarnation being Rage Against the Machine’s eponymous 1992 debut album (a poster of which I had on my wall throughout high school and college).

Meanwhile, back in South Vietnam in 1963, five other monks set themselves on fire in similar acts of protest, with many more doing the same in the years that followed.

In 1969, in a world away from the war ripping through the divided Vietnam and shortly before Americans would come to learn of the savagery of the My Lai Massacre, the Slovenian Yugoslav poet Edvard Kocbek published a poem titled “Rocket”: 

“Moonlight is dangerous,
Mothers used to say,
Sleeping walkers on nocturnal roofs
Are very suspicious,
Fathers used to judge,
And yet children were dazzled
By the fireworks of a mad crowd,
And this mathematical excursion of force to the Moon
Is the greatest fraud of all time,
An obsessed reiteration of a spinning World,
Caught up in death and darkness.

Time is more mysterious than space,
History books heavier than atlases,
Earth is the most colorful of rainbows
And man is hotter than the Sun,
And between the bright Cherubim
The flame of spirit is the most irrepressible,
A burning rocket named Palach
Has measured history
From bottom to top,
Even black glasses have read
The smoky message.”

The “burning rocket named Palach” Kocbek wrote of was a young man from Czechoslovakia named Jan Palach, who had set himself on fire on January 16, 1969, at the age of 20.

Palach, like many students in the late 1960s, had been gripped with a revolutionary zeal, though unlike student activists in the West around this time, the focus of his ire was the effects of communism, namely of the Soviet variety on his homeland. This was expressed in the letter he wrote, in which he (and his fictitious underground organization) demanded the cessation of the Soviet press organ in Prague, the Zprávy, and the end of all censorship policies that had been put in place by occupying Soviet forces, as well as calling for a general strike. After sending this letter to several different public figures, Palach went to Wenceslas Square, doused himself in an accelerant and set himself on fire. Unlike the self-immolation of Quảng Đức, there was little press coverage of the event at the time (in part thanks to Prague being under the crushing occupation of the Soviet Union). However, the impact was extraordinary, thanks in part to the fact that Palach did not die at the scene. In fact, he died three days later—on January 19th—as a result of his injuries. Jaroslava Moserová, the burns specialist who first treated Palach at the Charles University Faculty Hospital, was able to flesh out Palach’s actions in greater detail, thanks to what the dying Palach told him. As Moserová recalled:

“It was not so much in opposition to the Soviet occupation, but the demoralization which was setting in, that people were not only giving up, but giving in. And he wanted to stop that demoralization. I think the people in the street, the multitude of people in the street, silent, with sad eyes, serious faces, which when you looked at those people you understood that everyone understands, all the decent people who were on the verge of making compromises.”

His funeral later that month turned into a demonstration involving hundreds of thousands of Czechoslovak citizens showing their solidarity with Palach and his cause. 

In the months that followed Palach’s funeral, a number of other students followed his example, starting with Jan Zajíc in February of 1969, and then Evžen Plocek in April of that same year. Similar acts of protest throughout the Warsaw Pact—Hungary, Ukraine, Poland—had and continued to happen in the years that followed, often to little avail. Seeing the writing on the wall (though perhaps taking the wrong lesson), the Soviet-backed Czechoslovak secret police forces disinterred Palach’s remains and cremated his body, before unceremoniously sending the ashes to Palach’s mother and forbidding her from burying them for over a year. Palach’s name was frequently invoked whenever protest erupted against the Soviet regime, especially in 1989 during the riots that came to be known as “Palach Week,” events that catalyzed the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1990. At the 20th anniversary, an ongoing informal civic initiative known as Charter 77 published the following commemoration:

“He died because he wanted to shout as loud as possible. He wanted us to realize what was happening to us, to see what we were really doing, and to hear what we were saying in those times of reputedly inevitable concessions, ‘reasonable’ compromises, and hopefully clever tactical ploys. We started forgetting that something has to resist even the greatest pressure, something fundamental that cannot be bought or sold, but that is absolutely essential for maintaining our human dignity.”

Palach’s dismay at what had quickly become the status quo in his country made sense. Palach had been a student at Prague’s Charles University studying history and economics. Like so many people living in countries turned into the imperial playgrounds of the United States and Soviet Union, he had been caught in what Dan Carlin has appropriately called “the gears of history.” On August 20th, 1968—only five months before Palach set himself on fire—a quarter million Soviet soldiers, aided by troops from Poland, Bulgaria, and Hungary crossed the Czechoslovakian border and quickly occupied the nation. Many things had been changing in Czechoslovakia in the preceding years, raising the ire of the Soviet authorities, beginning with the de-Stalinization of the country under Antonín Novotný leading to a rapid economic decline. This led to the events of the Prague Spring, in which the new government under Alexander Dubček began enacting liberalizing reforms and a gradual decentralization of the state-run economy, as well as allowing the Czech and Slovak peoples peacefully to separate into their own respective republics. Before the effects of these reforms could be seen, and after some failed attempts at finding a diplomatic solution, the Soviets ordered the invasion of Czechoslovakia and put a stop to the biggest undermining of their authority since the end of the Second World War (apart perhaps from Josip Broz Tito’s refusal to bend the knee to Joseph Stalin in Yugoslavia). Any talk of reform was crushed, with nation-wide censorship and police crackdowns becoming the norm.

It only took five months for Palach to realize that this would persist if too few of his countrymen resisted.

Bushnell’s public suicide did not even remotely resemble the self-sacrifice of people in history who truly had no other recourse thanks to the time and place in which they lived. It was not, as Stein claimed, “reminiscent of that of Buddhist monks protesting US-backed oppression of their people in Vietnam.” In truth, Bushnell was a young American man, with no meaningful connections to either Israel or Palestine (and likely very little meaningful connection to any Jews or Arabs), living in a third-party nation in which his act of protest will do nothing to change any presidential administration’s support for the state of Israel, much less cause the Israel Defense Forces (or Hamas) to stop and think more critically about what the war is doing to civilians in Gaza. Bushnell’s obvious self-righteousness—made all the more obvious by his cheap invocation of the word “genocide”—was, at best, simply self-righteousness disguised as political desperation. The desperation Bushnell was feeling was obvious, but it had nothing to do with the political circumstances into which he inserted himself and likely much more to do with the internal demons with which he clearly struggled.

To claim that Bushnell is in an even comparable zip code to modern history’s most well-known examples of politically-driven self-immolation is to reveal one’s shallowness. The similarities begin and end with the use of an accelerant and a flame source. Bushnell was not living under a totalitarian Soviet occupying force like Palach or a corrupt puppet regime under which Quảng Đức lived. Surely, Bushnell’s despair about life itself must have been painful, but there was absolutely nothing about his life in the United States in 2024 that could be compared to those historical contexts. 

The actions of Bushnell were, ultimately, about what a lot of things are in the United States today: being trapped in a social media echo chamber and looking for any way to establish clout. The difference between chasing clout the way Bushnell did and the way political streamers on Twitch do is that Bushnell obviously had no interest in seeing how his clout would manifest. Not caring about the feelings of those who loved him, he wanted to die, and die he did—horribly.

Alexander von Sternberg is a graduate student in history, as well as a writer and podcaster living in Los Angeles. He has written essays and reviews for a number of publications and hosts the historical podcast History Impossible.

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