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Will Joe Biden hear this US airman’s harrowing cry of ‘Free Palestine’?

February 26, 2024 at 4:00 pm

People stage a demonstration in support of Palestinians at Lafayette Square Park in Washington DC, United States on February 10, 2024. [Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images]

“Free Palestine” is an enduring phrase that will come to define the street chants of millions of angry citizens who’ve marched and protested in capital cities around the world against Israel’s brutal, genocidal onslaught in Gaza.

They were also the final words screamed out by a young US airman as he turned himself into a human torch outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC on Sunday afternoon. Each “Free Palestine” cry became louder and more urgent than the last until the final, more muted and despairing cry was drowned out by panicked screams from nearby US Secret Service officers carrying fire extinguishers and guns to bring 25-year-old Aaron Bushnell’s protest to an end.

Bushnell succumbed to his injuries in the early hours of Monday morning, and we may never know the full story of his sacrifice other than that he had reached the end of his tether. “I will no longer be complicit in genocide,” said the serving member of the US Air Force. Speaking to the video camera in his possession, he described his self-immolation as 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. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal.”

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The fire was extinguished by the Secret Service personnel. Service spokesperson Joe Routh explained that officers of its uniformed division responded to what appeared to be “an individual that was experiencing a possible medical/mental health emergency.”

Of course, it is easy — and convenient — to describe Bushnell’s dramatic self-immolation as a mental breakdown which was mocked cruelly in an official Israeli Mossad post on X.

When it comes to the pain and suffering of others, Israel has no empathy or compassion whatsoever.

But what if Bushnell’s protest was more of a cry for help? Certainly, looking at social networks his sacrifice resonated with a lot of people who are clearly suffering some form of PTSD from the graphic images uploaded by Palestinians filming their own genocide. The Palestinians hope that their suffering, viewed by tens of millions around the world, will stop the brutal onslaught. So far, though, US President “Genocide Joe” Biden in the White House has failed to pick up the phone to Tel Aviv and demand a ceasefire.

According to respected journalist Mehdi Hassan, Biden could stop the carnage right now if he so wished. Maybe Bushnell, a DevOps Engineer based in San Antonio, Texas, thought his sacrifice might sway Biden. Sadly, we will never know his true intentions, and while Mossad mocked the end of this young man’s life, our thoughts go out to his grieving family.

This is not the first time that someone has turned themselves into a human torch to make a dramatic protest. In December, Reuters reported that someone wrapped in a Palestinian flag self-immolated outside the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta. The protestor, who has not been named, is still in a critical condition. A security guard who attempted to intervene was also injured.

Self-immolation has a history as a form of protest. The Arab World remembers well the sacrifice of the young Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi who is credited with kicking off the Arab Spring when the frustrated street vendor set himself on fire outside the governor’s office, despondent at being unable to earn money and provide for his family.

Perhaps the most iconic self-immolation was that of Quang Duc in Saigon on 11 June, 1963 over the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. The then US President Kennedy said of Malcolm Browne’s award-winning images of the burning monk that, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”

I pray that Bushnell’s protest is not dismissed as the act of someone having a mental breakdown, but instead carries the same sort of impact of Quang Duc’s demise. The order in the White House today has to be this simple: “Get Netanyahu on the line.”

Don’t let Aaron Bushnell’s protest and self-sacrifice be in vain, President Biden. When a young, white man in a US military uniform screams: “Free Palestine” whilst in agonising death throes, surely to God you must listen — and then make that call.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.