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What’s the point of self-immolation? It is a uniquely paradoxical form of protest

Shocking but beautiful. History/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Shocking but beautiful. History/Universal Images Group/Getty Images


February 29, 2024   4 mins

Aaron Bushnell served with the US Air Force as part of the 531st Intelligence Support Squadron at a base in Texas. On Sunday, the 25-year-old travelled to the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC, doused himself with an accelerant of some sort, and set himself on fire, later dying of his injuries in hospital.

Before he did so, he said: “I will no longer be complicit in 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 colonisers, it’s not extreme at all.” He live-streamed his self-immolation on the gaming platform Twitch.

Here is a chilling collision of the digital and the analogue, the 21st century and the medieval. A US national (a member of the armed services, no less) felt he was digitally complicit in a war being fought on the other side of the world; and streamed his protest in the nowhere of cyberspace. Yet the form of his protest, which fits into a centuries-old tradition, could not have been more primal and embodied.

There’s a lot of talk these days about “luxury beliefs” — political positions or radical ideas that the privileged adopt as a mark of status, and whose trickle-down effects tend to be borne by the less privileged. There are lots of reasons — ulterior motives, if you like — to hold a political position or go on a march. You might hope to impress girls with your keffiyeh and combat trousers. You might hope to acquire radical chic, to fit in with your peers, to Ă©pater la bourgeoisie. You might like the thrill of a bit of mild crowd violence, in a safely policed environment, as you holler your demands to defund the police. There are any number of peripheral reasons you might wave a banner or put a brick through a window.

What you don’t do for a luxury belief is set yourself on fire. If you set yourself on fire, there isn’t the slightest chance that your act of protest is a pose. There’s an ungainsayable level of commitment there. The Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards, stung by music-press sneers that the band were wannabe punk-rock posers, once took the opportunity of an interview with the NME to carve “4 REAL” into his arm with a razorblade. Self-immolation is that gesture squared, that gesture cubed. It literalises the declaration made by Nelson Mandela on his commitment to jail in a Pretoria courtroom: “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

“It is a uniquely spectacular and paradoxical form of protest”

It is a uniquely spectacular and paradoxical form of protest, though. It is not instrumental in any obvious way. The suicide bomber is prepared to give his life to destroy his enemies. The soldier in war is prepared to risk his life to attack or defend a territory or a flag. But the self-immolator makes a gesture whose only feature is the demonstration that his cause is more important to him than his life: a suicide-bomber without victims.

Self-immolation doesn’t seek to build networks of resistance (unless, and improbably, by social contagion). It doesn’t threaten or cajole. It doesn’t negotiate or even imply negotiation. It’s at once flagrantly egotistical and self-annihilating. We could think of it as the symptom of a diseased or distressed mind — as something essentially nihilistic. But the systematic way in which it has been used as a form of protest century in, century out — and that it still holds an appeal in the modern age — makes that hard to sustain. If anything, it’s idealistic — inasmuch as it holds as an article of faith that self-destruction can carry a meaning beyond itself. It’s a ritual.

But what is that ritual doing? Every form of protest is, one way or another, a rhetorical appeal: it seeks to persuade. And most forms of rhetoric seek to gather the communicator and the audience into some sort of coalition: to make a “we” from a collection of disparate individuals. But sitting on a pavement in flames makes no appeal for solidarity or fraternity: it marks you out as a person absolutely isolated from his or her fellow man. It’s a communication that extinguishes the communicator in the process. It bids for martyrdom, sainthood, Buddha-nature.

“Sitting on a pavement in flames makes no appeal for solidarity or fraternity.”

It’s not an accident, then, that self-immolation as a form of protest is or has been primarily associated with religious traditions. (It comes, among other things, with the Dalai Lama’s qualified seal of approval as a “practice of non-violence”.) The most famous act of self-immolation in living memory is that of the Buddhist monk ThĂ­ch QuáșŁng Đức — who set himself on fire in the summer of 1963 at a busy road junction in Saigon in protest at the regime’s persecution of his co-religionists. The press photographs of his burning went round the world. (Whether the monk would have approved his death being used on the cover of a multi-platinum album by Rage Against the Machine is a question for debate.)

And fire itself, as the medium, comes with religious overtones built in in any number of traditions: it’s a symbol of the divine. Fire is what humans stole from the gods. It’s the elemental symbol of our mastery and our hubris; it’s the basic human technology; and it’s the thing that the animal in us fears, that we flinch from by instinct. It’s the “red flower” in Kipling; Eliot’s “intolerable shirt of flame”. To embrace it as a manner of death has an intuitive symbolism that garnishes the sheer extremity of the act in a way that no other form of suicide can.

There’s an awful sublimity to it: an unspeakable impulse to violence, extravagantly articulated, but turned inwards. The 1963 image of that burning monk is powerful not just because it’s so shocking, but because the image is so beautiful. The semi-translucent curls and billows of the flame wrap the perfectly composed human figure at the centre of them: QuáșŁng Đức sat unmoving, in the lotus position, as he burned. His death was a conscious and ostentatious act of self-possession in the face of (we can safely assume) unbelievable physical agony. The paradox, again: an act that appears to be an extreme response to powerlessness; an act that seeks to demonstrate superhuman control.

Is QuáșŁng Đức the inspirer of Airman Bushnell’s extraordinary and terrible death? We can’t know, because the act consumes the only person who could tell us why they are doing it or what they hope to achieve. But we do know that self-immolation has been a feature of protests among even apparently secular Westerners for decades now. There were periodic self-immolations in the US in protest at the Vietnam war. It was the self-immolation of a Tunisian stallholder, Muhammad Bouazizi, that sparked the Tunisian revolution, and self-immolation was a feature of the wider Arab Spring.

Perhaps the enduring attraction of this terrifying, self-destructive gesture of resistance implies that it has become something dangerously fitted to the digital age. That it has, in fact, become a meme.


Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator. His forthcoming book, The Haunted Wood: A History of Childhood Reading, is out in September.
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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 months ago

A beautiful and powerful essay, imo. I wouldn’t, however, be too quick to dismiss the role of mental illness in some instances of self-immolation. I suspect some people develop an almost romantic view of this type of death without considering the terrible pain and suffering it entails.

Paul
Paul
2 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Indeed this essay strikes me as an embodiment of the romantic view. No thanks!

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
2 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I suspect there was some kind of emotional manipulation, indoctrination and grooming of the sort that young Islamist suicide bombers tend to endure before carrying out their martyrdom. If I were a betting man I would posit that the young airman had been accepted into a identitarian quasi-religious activist community which inspired his actions. That and untreated mental disorders. A tragedy.

Christina Dalcher
Christina Dalcher
2 months ago
Disputatio Ineptias
Disputatio Ineptias
2 months ago

Just to clarify a point in that article from The Guardian. The Community of Jesus is not a Benedictine (Catholic) community. It is an ecumenical prayer community who have modeled their communal prayer after the Benedictine tradition.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
2 months ago

That certainly demonstrates that he was ripe for manipulation

Apparently some of his reddit conversations have been posted where he claims to be an anarchist and they demonstrate a severe hatred of Jews in general. It seems my suspicions were spot on. There’s currently a deep rot in the West.

Katja Sipple
Katja Sipple
2 months ago

Thank you for that. I didn’t know, but I had suspected something along those lines.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Mental illness immediately came to my mind too.

El Uro
El Uro
2 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The Sorrows of Young Werther

Katja Sipple
Katja Sipple
2 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Excellent point. Almost nobody in his/her right mind would consider suicide. I make an exception for those who are terminally ill. My father committed suicide, because his mental health was compromised after having suffered from tinnitus and lack of sleep as a result of it. Had he been his normal self, he never would have considered suicide (not self-immolation, but slicing his wrist to bleed out in the bath tub) as an option.

Anna Clare Bryson
Anna Clare Bryson
2 months ago

At least in Europe, the self immolation of Quang Duc in 1963 is definitely not the best-known example of this form of protest in living memory. More famous is a secular European example of 1969 – the young man in question became an icon of national resistance and whole squares and streets are named after him. One gets the impression here that’s Leith has simply never heard of him and his country.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 months ago

You mean Jan Palach.
I have to admit I had never heard of him and had to look him up. Says an awful lot about the leanings of the MSM

Sue Sims
Sue Sims
2 months ago

Yes, I was struck by exactly the same thing. I was 17 in 1969, and Jan Palach immediately became a byword among our generation: I don’t recall anyone questioning why he did it, or whether he was mentally ill – he was regarded as the epitome of courage. And I don’t think we’d ever heard of Quang Duc by name, though we were vaguely aware that this was the sort of thing done by Buddhist monks. But Czechoslovakia was a lot closer, and the Cold War was still very real.

glyn harries
glyn harries
2 months ago

I think the point though is that there were many more photos of the Saigon immolation so since that point that is the one people know.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 months ago
Reply to  glyn harries

Actually there are pictures of Jan Palach

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 months ago

It’s a barbaric form of pride, the opposite of martyrdom. If anything, it exemplifies how absolutely deranged these antisemites have become.

glyn harries
glyn harries
2 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

I don’t think the Buddhist monk in Saigon was an antisemite.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 months ago
Reply to  glyn harries

No, neither I nor the article claimed that he was.

Richard Millard
Richard Millard
2 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

The article did not go anywhere near the notion of anti-semitism. What makes you bring it up?

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
2 months ago

I was very young during the Vietnam War but the three lasting images I have of it are the execution of Nguyễn Văn LĂ©m, Phan Thi Kim PhĂșc running down the road after the napalm attack, and the self-immolation of ThĂ­ch QuáșŁng Đức. I have probably thought about the latter more than all of them down the years, without reaching a firm conclusion on my view of it.
I have no settled view of the death of Aaron Bushnell, but I know I will devote a lot of thought to it for what years I have left. I certainly won’t forget him, but as with the other notable instances of self-immolation since ThĂ­ch QuáșŁng Đức, I fear that his name will be forgotten by most in a few years. I don’t think his sacrifice will, sadly, change anything.

Martin M
Martin M
2 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

The three photos you mention are indeed iconic, particularly as they all focus on human subjects relatively close up. For me, there is a fourth iconic Vietnam War image, which is the “Fall of Saigon” photo, involving a Huey helicopter perched on the top of the Pittman Building, and people climbing up to it on a ladder. The building is still there (or was a few years ago, when I visited Vietnam). The instant I saw it, I thought “I know that building”, despite the building being very nondescript, and my not having thought about it for 40 years.

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
2 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

I was watching some video fairly recently, and the camera panned to the top of the Pittman Building, and I instantly knew what I was looking at.

El Uro
El Uro
2 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

The 36-year-old Nguyễn Văn LĂ©m was accused of murdering South Vietnamese Lieutenant Colonel Nguyễn TuĂąn, his wife, six children, and 80-year-old mother. He was allegedly captured near a mass grave of approximately thirty civilians.
It’s always interesting to wonder what’s hidden behind the curtain, but Nguyễn Văn LĂ©m’s victims were not caught on camera

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

I believe that he camera man who took the photograph later said that the execution was righteous

El Uro
El Uro
2 months ago

I’m not sure, I’m afraid you think too well of people, but I want to note that whether the viewer knows the subtext or not, from an artistic point of view these shots are simply amazing.
But it’s better if the viewer knows.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 months ago
Reply to  El Uro

As I recall he had nothing but sympathy for the shooter given the circumstances

El Uro
El Uro
2 months ago

Thank you

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
2 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

What “settled views” or “firm conclusions” do you have concerning the three Vietnam era images you’ve mentioned, or any horrific image you’ve thought about a great deal?
Putting aside my dig at a couple of your terms, I’m genuinely interested in hearing your thoughts, or conclusions, about the impact of these public acts of deadly protest, on a personal or societal level.

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
2 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Perhaps I wasn’t clear? I haven’t reached any.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
2 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

K. Thanks 4 that then.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

I sincerely hope it doesn’t change anything, for if it did, it might only encourage others to commit similar acts of nihilism.

Nik Jewell
Nik Jewell
2 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

The death of over a hundred and the injury of many hundreds today will possibly change more.

Paul Hemphill
Paul Hemphill
2 months ago
Reply to  Nik Jewell

There is also the case of Jan Palach, the young Czech student who immolated himself in Wenceslas Square in Prague in January 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion and occupation and Czech submission. Two other emulated him just a few months later. As Wiki records: “According to a burns specialist who was the first to provide care to Palach at the Charles University Faculty Hospital, Palach did not set himself on fire to protest against the Soviet occupation, but did so to protest against the “demoralization” of Czechoslovak citizens caused by the occupation.
“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, that all the decent people were on the verge of making compromises”

Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
2 months ago

I think that there is a difference between suicide as a protest of my condition and suicide as a protest of another’s condition. The former is a statement that my life is worthless or you want to kill me, so I will beat you by publicly kill myself. The latter is indeed a meme, and a deranged act of ultimate narcissism.

Pedro the Exile
Pedro the Exile
2 months ago
Reply to  Rafi Stern

a deranged act of ultimate narcissism.my initial reaction also-given that it is completely irrational it can only be that and/or a degree of mental instability.
And then “I will no longer be complicit in 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 colonisers, it’s not extreme at all.” He live-streamed his self-immolation on the gaming platform Twitch.
I mean…live streamed on a gaming platform.Sounds like he has been brainwashed by the incessant chanting-I’m not clear in what way he was”complicit” and I doubt he had any real appreciation of the Palestinian experience other than that on his social media channels.And par for the course-the barbarism of 07/10 is airbrushed out of the debate-its all about him.

Danny Kaye
Danny Kaye
2 months ago

Bushnell’s self-immolation is a sad metaphor for what Hamas did with Gaza. They have been dousing themselves with accelerants for 16 years and on October 7 they lit the flame.

Samuel Gee
Samuel Gee
2 months ago

There’s a phenomenon in the US called “suicide by cop”. It’s where the suicidal person engineers a situation in which a police officer shoots and kills them. Pointing a fake or real firearm at them usually does the trick. But the point is that the person was suicidal first and the method secondary. I’m not aware of any work on the psychological motivation for the method selection but it looks suspiciously like narcissism. The unwillingness to blow your own brains out in the garage or out in the wilderness somewhere where no one can see. But I speculate. But either way suicide by cop is equally “committed”. Is there perhaps something about self-immolation that works in the same way? Is this not just a suicidal person, unwilling to go quietly and wanting a spectacular end?

Bina Shah
Bina Shah
2 months ago

Excellent essay. I’ve been trying to explain the significance and symbolism to friends who think this was a useless act indicative of mental illness.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 months ago
Reply to  Bina Shah

Could you explain it to me?

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
2 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Me too please. Some are romanticizing the hellish self-slaughter of a 25-year-old because the Bushnell’s declared motivation aligns with their political views.
“He said that he kind of went from one extreme — the conservative beliefs that he had grown up around — to the opposite, forming his anarchist, anti-imperialist values,” Ms. Barboza said. “And he said it was a very quick shift, and he just said it went from one extreme to the other.”
–from the NYT write-up, a better analysis and even sadder story than you might expect:
https://www.nytimes.com/2024/02/28/us/aaron-bushnell-israel-embassy-fire.html?unlocked_article_code=1.ZE0.aTeC.bZvXnqyjW353&smid=em-share

Barry Casey
Barry Casey
2 months ago
Reply to  Bina Shah

You read the article wrong. An exercise in absolute torturous agonising futility by a kid who had no meaning or purpose in his life.
The most extreme example of nihilism I’ve ever seen.
It was a useless act, indicative of severe mental illness and zero self worth
That you think otherwise speaks volumes about you.
But hey you’ re a comfy spectator loving the”significance and symbolism” of a lost soul destroying in the most extreme primal way possible his physical body for views on social media
Do us a favour big boy. Or big girl. Whatever the f u are.

Steve Maynard
Steve Maynard
2 months ago

“What you don’t do for a luxury belief is set yourself on fire. â€œ Unless of course you are certifiably insane as quite frankly a lot of them must be if they think it will help much

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
2 months ago

What did Bushnell’s action accomplish? It’s bad enough that he was wrong on the basic facts, but a permanent solution to a temporary situation is more indicative of an imbalanced person than a committed one.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
2 months ago

Does the burning of Man work the burning of God?
Our God is a consuming fire (Heb.xii.29). Is self-immolation by fire a claim to be divine? Offerings were made by burning an item on an altar. The smoke from this ascended to the heavens as a ‘sweet smelling savour’.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 months ago

Don’t you think the lack of mental fitness had something to do with this soldier’s ’insane’ act?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
2 months ago

He has taken his brand of stupid out of the gene pool. For that we should be grateful.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
2 months ago

Burning yourself to death = Brainwashing is very effective.That’s why you need to develop a nuanced intellect. Where do you think the lack of hope comes from? All those woken that bandy around the term genocide should reflect on their speech.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 months ago

I don’t have much information on this incident, or its background; however I do see from the comments that certain readers are taking positions related to their worldview. Hardly surprising!
So, what about the soldier who goes over the top to take out a pilbox, facing certain death but saving the lives of several of his comrades? Wouldn’t we – if he were on our side – give him a hero’s medal?
And what about Navalny and his decision to return to Putin’s Russia, back into the hands of those who tried to assasinate him?
There are a host of other examples where people face death for their beliefs.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
2 months ago

The extinguishing of hope is the difference. Soldiers who want to die for the cause aren’t a good thing.

Nancy Kmaxim
Nancy Kmaxim
2 months ago

Worldview certainly matters. This wasn’t an act of self sacrifice, it was an act of aggression and self dramatization. There are lots of ways to give your life for others quietly and effectively but I can’t think of one which involves punishing as many people as possible. There is nothing romantic about this act and presenting it as such puts vulnerable young people at risk.

dan sefton
dan sefton
2 months ago

I suppose setting yourself on fire is the ultimate hot take?

Paul Hemphill
Paul Hemphill
2 months ago

There is also the case of Jan Palach, the young Czech student who immolated himself in Wenceslas Square in Prague in January 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion and occupation and Czech submission. Two other emulated him just a few months later. As Wiki records: “According to a burns specialist who was the first to provide care to Palach at the Charles University Faculty Hospital, Palach did not set himself on fire to protest against the Soviet occupation, but did so to protest against the “demoralization” of Czechoslovak citizens caused by the occupation.
“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, that all the decent people were on the verge of making compromises”

Jonathon
Jonathon
2 months ago

This man was suffering severe mental health issues and all some folk can do is use this to their advantage. There is no gain from lighting yourself on fire for a cause thousands of miles from you which will not be changed by one individual.