'This Is What Our Ruling Class Has Decided Will Be Normal'

U.S. Airman Aaron Bushnell set himself on fire rather than "be complicit in genocide." His last words were a challenge we must find the courage to heed

'This Is What Our Ruling Class Has Decided Will Be Normal'
Aaron Bushnell. Via @TaliaOTG on X.

Edited by Sam Thielman

I HAD A PLAN for what this edition of FOREVER WARS would be. But then I saw a young airman named Aaron Bushnell end his life in what he called an "extreme act of protest" against the Israeli genocide in Gaza.

We know this thanks to the journalist Talia Jane, so I want to express my gratitude to her. 

I don't think it's necessary to show a man burning to death to make the points that follow. You can read this story for the basics and, should you want to see it, the video is circulating widely. (Talia posted a blurred version, with the permission of Aaron's loved ones.) But on Sunday, Aaron, wearing his field uniform, walked up to the Israeli embassy in Washington and declared that he would "no longer be complicit in genocide" before dousing himself in a flammable liquid and setting himself alight. 

"This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal," Aaron said in his final moments. Aflame, he screamed "free Palestine" for as long as he could.

Anyone with a conscience has been rent from the soul outward at the nearly 30,000 men, women and children culled by the Israelis in Gaza, and by the many hundreds of thousands more who are being starved, dehydrated and left to waste away from preventable illness. While we have heard this before, reports suggest a deal for a temporary ceasefire and long-overdue hostage release may finally be imminent—although the Israeli government says the deal will not stop the IDF from sacking Rafah, the final redoubt of 1.4 million people, and the government plans an indefinite reoccupation of Gaza for the "postwar." 

At every stage of this horror, and seemingly the stages to come, the Israelis have had the ironclad material and diplomatic support of the Biden administration and a bipartisan congressional majority. That is the complicity Aaron is talking about, and which he considered too personally burdensome to live through. He is not the first person to set himself on fire in protest of Gaza. And anyone who does so inevitably references Thích Quảng Đức, the Buddhist monk who burned himself alive in 1963 to protest the U.S.-supported government of South Vietnam. 

But I've never heard of a U.S. servicemember performing such an extreme act. That seems like a turn of the historical ratchet, as well as a bone-deep indictment of U.S. policy from someone inside the national-security apparatus. That's why he burned himself wearing his field uniform. He is symbolically purging the sins of a country whose ruling class has acted so disgracefully. 

The day before Aaron killed himself, the U.S. and its coalition once again engaged in yet another wave of bombing Houthi positions in Yemen—eight of them this time—to protect commerce in the Red Sea. Via Daniel Larison’s newsletter, the Yemen researcher Gregory Johnsen recently commented, "the Houthis won’t be deterred because they want this confrontation with the United States." I recently attended an enlightening Chatham House seminar on the Iranian "Axis of Resistance" coalition, in which several scholars noted that the Houthi relationship with Iran is simply not the same as the one Iran maintains with the so-called Islamic Resistance of Iraq—which has (for now) ceased attacks on U.S. locations in Iraq and Syria after miscalculating and killing three U.S. Army reservists in Jordan. Iran can resupply the Houthis with weaponry to replenish what the U.S. destroyed, however. 

All this adds up to little reason to believe the U.S. can change the Houthi calculus. It can only draw itself deeper into a destructive conflict that threatens a long-suffering, impoverished Yemen. And none of that can obscure the reality that Red Sea shipping would continue unimpeded if only the Biden administration would pressure Israel into reversing course in Gaza. That path not taken is the sort of thing Aaron meant when he referred to "what our ruling class has decided will be normal."

And while I'm admittedly at risk of going off on a tangent, across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, in Somalia, U.S. Africa Command is investigating whether a recent drone strike against al-Shabaab killed two Cuban doctors the terror group has long held hostage. It wasn't even the only U.S. drone strike in Somalia this month. No one even pretends to offer a theory as to how such strikes will stop al-Shabaab. Their indefinite nature, a violent policing action, is its own justification. That's something else our ruling class has decided will be normal. 

But none of this is normal, and none of it has to be. 

Out of the flames of Aaron's sacrifice is supposed to emerge a redemption. But that cannot be Aaron's task. It has to be ours.

SAVE THE DATE! On Friday, March 8, me and my WALLER VS. WILDSTORM co-writer and friend Evan Narcisse will be signing at Brooklyn's finest, Bulletproof Comics on Nostrand Avenue from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Not only can you get your currently-available-for-purchase WVW hardcover edition signed, but you should get Evan to sign your copies of Rise of The Black Panther, Batman: Gotham Knights–Gilded City, the Milestone 30th Anniversary special and all his other modern comics instant-classics. Come hang, it'll be fun. 

Meanwhile, if you don't have single issues of WVW and you want a four-issue set signed by me, they're going fast at Bulletproof! No one is prouder of WVW than her older sibling, REIGN OF TERROR: HOW THE 9/11 ERA DESTABILIZED AMERICA AND PRODUCED TRUMP, which is available now in hardcover, softcover, audiobook and Kindle edition. And on the way is a new addition to the family: THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN.