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Bushnell's Requiem: An Ode to a Martyr

This twelve-page piece is dedicated to Aaron Bushnell, the 25-year-old Airman who burned himself to death on February 25th, 2024. In doing so, he martyred himself through extreme protest of the Palestinian genocide currently being conducted by Israel and its Western allies. 

"We should not live in a world that requires human sacrifice to make an important political statement on the value of human life." —Bay Ryan

Note: This piece was inspired by someone I respect, but whose apathy and myopia I wish to respond to: Bad Empanada and his video, 
"Americans Demand I Praise US Soldier Who Self-Immolated to Protest Gaza Genocide" (2024). I respond to it in his second channel's community section: "I thought your refusal to say anything about Aaron Bushnell's martyrdom at all, only to comment on American jingoism and all-importance is, I feel, incredibly myopic and apathetic; e.g., "I don't care" (which you've said as much); i.e., to overlook something vital merely to state the obvious, thereby avoiding solidarity with Americans who otherwise might agree with you during a shared struggle against larger forces at play. It's not "praise" to call Bushnell a martyr, it's a fact. He was an anarcho-Communist, and this act wasn't a spontaneous [one made] by a weekend warrior. He lived it, dude."

Martyrdom is seldom agreed upon and often misunderstood. For proof, consider two YouTube channels that I follow, Bad Empanada and GPD. Bad Empanada cynically and prematurely described Bushnell's death as "a waste of time," condemning the Americans entering his channel for wanting him to discuss it by virtue of those persons "being unable to see things beyond their own noses." Showing his own privilege (and nose), Bad Empanada went on to say that far better ways of devoting one's time to class war exist than killing oneself, and that, likewise, there are far better ways to kill oneself for a cause than Bushnell's; conversely, GPD commented quite differently, concluding, "The statement that [Bushnell] made, the way that he made it, the symbolism of the act, the uncomfortable truth of the act that makes reporting on it so awkward for Western mass media, makes this arguably one of the most important instances of protest in US history" ("I Watched the Uncensored Aaron Bushnell Video," 2024).

I understand both points of view. Indeed, it is possible that both are essentially correct at the same time (this post will address several paradoxes, because liberation requires us doing so in order to liberate ourselves from the elite's powerful illusions). Though somewhat cold and callous in his frank assessment, Bad Empanada's candor is merited; many Americans are arrogant insofar as they value the lives and voices of those from home versus those from abroad making the same arguments on a daily basis. He wanted to say it and said so without shame, but his cynical, judgement-clouding anger did two things: a) clump all Americans together and b) miss a larger point that GDF did not. GDF is also right, then, insofar as Bushnell's death is both highly unusual* and persuasive: to be done by a member of the colonizing group—and not only that, a member within said group paid to actively participate in genocide as a structure—is intimidating to the elite precisely because the executioners are revealed to be human and have human feelings, which is just as important as humanizing the victims in the obvious colonized group.

*Uncanny enough that I am writing about it on February 29th, of all days.

In other words, true martyrdom is not legitimate on one side of the fence alone. The elite colonize everyone and try to divide it into clear-cut categories. Except these divisions aren't so easily upheld. Once they begin to weaken and blend, the reasons for upholding a settler-colonial project fall apart. To that, Ho Chi Minh's adage—"We will kill one of you and you will kill ten of us, but in the end, you will tire first"—rings true. The givers and receivers of a state-sanctioned conflict reveal both to be human, one losing its ability to receive punishment and the other to give it. Both must happen simultaneously and en masse for settler-colonialism to stop; i.e., to such a degree as to overload the mechanisms of capital and prevent the state's usual operations from carrying themselves out: moving money through nature at the cost of human life (Capitalism is a torment nexus built to serve profit).

I have often stated that power is an illusion and a paradox, something to perceive and perform. The state relies on powerful illusions to operate, manufacturing crises, consent and scarcity to drive people to the level of madness required to do the very things Bushnell was protesting against; i.e., to perform the roles necessary to keep Capitalist Realism in place, often through Gothic poetics. The moment the soldier—a killer for the state dressed in dogma (the uniform)—sets themselves ablaze, they cease to function in favor of the state and its illusions; they become a symbol of resistance that, for once, puts the daily massacres and bloodshed of the colonized on the colonizers' own doorstep. It forces the living to behold the dead and face realities they have denied using the very things Bushnell is lighting on fire—uniforms, but also the bodies wearing those uniforms. He was destroying himself and what he once stood for to break the spell according to his current anarchist values. That should speak to the potency of the illusions at play, here, and the degree required through sheer force-of-will to shatter them.

No one can really argue that willpower wasn't a factor, here. It takes tremendous guts to stand out from the in-group in open defiance, let alone set yourself on fire and burn to death. Bushnell did it while shouting "Free Palestine!" until the flames took him. In doing so, we saw him become a paradox himself: a martyr for the people of Palestine while, for a fleeting moment, still appearing to be the thing he was no longer operating as, engulfed in flames. He became an effigy, a funeral pyre, a wicker man.

To call it messy and tragic would be an understatement. But it's also vital to consider precisely because there are no simple conclusions to be drawn, here, save one: America is the prime colonizing force the world over, and Bushnell hit that square on the nose. He was lucid right until the end, stating calmly his intent and reasons for his act of protest shortly before lighting the match, but also asking CrimethInc to preserve his actions for him after he was dead. This was a premediated act, bravely carried out by someone who knew they were going to die and choosing to do it anyways.

The paradox of Bushnell's deed resonates in how Bad Empanada is both right and wrong. Yes, there are other effective ways to utilize martyrdom, insofar as spending a life to challenge the Imperium goes (use your imagination); but targeting their propaganda in an admittedly rare act regardless of which side you're on speaks volumes unto itself. Actions speak louder than words, and facing the horror of the flames to live on in the hearts and minds of those who watch you burn? That has an awesome power that should not be discounted. Beyond snarky Ozzie academes who look like Castro (it's coming from a place of love, Empanada), American news media cannot own Bushnell; nor can they discredit what he did as a sacrifice that went beyond America's usual altars thereof. It was a heavy decision, to be sure, but one made by an individual out of desperation, not lunacy. Doing what he did, Bushnell refused to serve elite aims despite the latter's preparation and tendency to call him and those like him "mad" (the paradox being that desperation evokes acts of ostensible madness towards a noble and sadly difficult-to-achieve goal: liberation). 

Regardless of who's throwing the stone, to say that is to call all victims of settler-colonialism "mad," and that will not do. In the past, men like Edward Snowden, George Lee Butler, Howard Zinn—and hell, Bob fucking Ross (above)all proved that servants of the Imperial Core can become disillusioned and turn away from a life (and structure) of settler-colonial violence. Bushnell counts among their number. The soldier who became became an anarchist, he was not born an antiwar rebel, but reared into slavery as a soldier who exited the cave once he was able: "I am an anarchist, which means I believe in the abolition of all hierarchical power structures, especially capitalism and the state… I view the work we do as fighting back in the class war which the capitalist class wages on the rest of humanity" (source tweet: Scott Crow, 2024). By refusing to talk about that, Bad Empanada has, I fear, thrown the baby out with the bathwater. 

I don't want to focus solely on the opinions of others, so I'll proceed with an anecdote and my own Gothic expertise. My partner Bay (from the epigram) and I, when discussing the ethics of resistance and liberation, wondered back and forth about the ability of suicide bombers to consent. While the cause of resisting one's incarceration, predation and ultimately genocide is moral, the ability to consent to becoming a martyr remains murky. No one consents to being born into Capitalism and its woes. But martyrdom highlights a fundamental problem the colonized live with on a daily basis: die to liberate your world, or die a slave. Those in the state of exception are already dead, so embracing that as a weapon to reach into the soul of your killers with is an awesome ability indeed, but one with a heavy toll. Except if it's already paid by accident of birth, the paradox rears its ugly head in more ways than one. Like Medusa, it stares into your soul with the white, milky eyes of a living corpse: "watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set." Something is rotten and pissed off.

The idea is to see through the eyes of death and note the sickness of society: that in a horrible place, horrible acts become rational. And though I cannot fathom Bushnell's withering agony as darkness closed in—to know that his own family disowned him and, as Christians, affiliate with Zionism and the state more than their own son—a brush with death* myself yesterday had me contemplating the finality of the exercise and not only what was at stake, but what Bushnell gave and what he won. His hard-fought wisdom is our teacher.

*This morning I had a bit of a medical crisis. Turns out, taking hydroxyzine (to help me sleep) and spironolactone (for my gender-affirming care) causes hypotension (low blood pressure) and an erratic, fast heartbeat. In my case, my heartbeat was between 110-130 for about 24 hours and my blood pressure dropped from the low 90s (which is a tad high, due to me taking Estrogen) to 46 (60 is considered low). Cold sweats, seeing spots, hearing the ocean. It kind of felt like having a panic attack, but extended. Not fun. Luckily my blood pressure and heart rate are back to normal now. But it was pretty scary for a minute there. It was a minor brush with death, what you might say was a "wakeup call." To that, Bushnell's fatal commentary on America is likewise a death omen that we can learn from, with fear remaining a vital part of its teaching power.

People in the Imperial Core like to think of themselves as just, forgetting what death is while being born into a system that encourages it through the very divisions I've laid out, here. They don't like to be reminded of those shadowy realities, which Medusa's beheading shows to them beyond the cave-wall puppetry they're used to. Turned back at them through Athena's Aegis, and exacted on "one of their own," they're forced to see, thus process, the very horrors they spend their entire lives abjecting. Madness, for them, is the only thing that makes sense, except they're projecting their own menticidal coding onto Bushnell. He saw things clearly and chose to act in such a manner as to end Capitalism by breaking its centuries-old curse; to say otherwise is to fool yourself, stay in Plato's cave, and turn away from the truth (and the horror) of things. It's to be complacent, thus complicit, which Bushnell ultimately refused to do.

Ellen Ripley once said, "I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit." The words of a true madwoman, isn't that what America has been doing for over seventy years now? Military optimism, as I envisioned it ("The Promethean Quest and James Cameron's Military Optimism in Metroid," 2021), is the idea that you can kill your problems, somehow "slaying Medusa." But you can't kill Medusa because her life-after-death persona represents things that aren't people, alone; they're structures and the genocide they cause seen in the final moments of the damned. Theirs isn't a question of blind faith towards a self-righteous cause, but conscious conviction towards a cause that is just. As Bay put it regarding a suicide bomber's uncertain ability to consent, "We live in a world where such conversations are not only possible, but necessary [echoing Anita Sarkeesian]. Some people can't understand what it's like to do something when feeling so desperate that only self-sacrifice makes sense to them." They added, "I was just thinking about how sheltered the West is from it all. The only conclusion Westerners have been consistently making when they're not understanding the situation is, 'Oh, he must be mentally ill because why the fuck else would you do that?'"

Why, indeed. To that, Bushnell—a Westerner—made a difficult-but-informed choice: to martyr himself, thus expose the Western world to their own hypocrisy and ignorance. And who better informed (at his register, anyways) than a cyber security specialist? It smacks of Snowden and, for that matter, Chelsea Manning (a military security analyst who released video of American atrocities and was imprisoned for it; i.e., was actually imprisoned for her crimes, though one could argue Snowden is a prisoner of exile). I'd say "minus the suicide," except Snowden's actions were still a death sentence (there's no functional, praxial difference between social death—i.e., being made into a slave 
inside a larger prisonthen literal, actual death on either side of its walls). Like Snowden and Manning, Bushnell recognized the plight of the oppressed, in this case the Palestinians, and took action—action, I must add, he recognized as ordinary to them and their plights, and made so by those in power abusing people just like Bushnell on a daily basis: "I will no longer be complicit in genocide. I'm about to engage in an extreme act of protest. But compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonizers it's not extreme at all. This is what our ruling class has decided will be normal" (source: CrimethInc). 

The paradox for Bushnell is he made a choice to leave the security of the Western mindset, his complete self-destruction an educational act of siding indisputably with the oppressed by literally becoming one of their number. He was not the Roman fool falling on his own sword, but Medusa cutting off her own head to show it to the West and freeze them solid. It took guts, conviction, and profound belief in a better world. More to the point, it will endlessly haunt those people most used to Western illusions—seeing a ghost on the other side of the fence, inside Macbeth's fortressand that's precisely the point. Sisyphus, Camus argued, should smile at the gods to best their punishment, hence the absurdity of life; Medusa, Creed argued, smiled because she had bested her tormentors: "When Perseus slew the Medusa he did not—as commonly thought—put an end to her reign or destroy her terrifying powers." Quite the contrary. She lived on to drive men mad.

Robert Asprey writes, "Not only can terror be employed as a weapon, but any weapon can become a weapon of terror: terror is a weapon, a weapon is terror, and no one agency monopolizes it" (source: War in the Shadows: the Guerrilla in History, 1994). My own book, Sex Positivity (2023), argues, 

In other words, the state's monopoly of violence—Max Weber's maxim, "a state holds a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence within its territory, meaning that violence perpetrated by other actors is illegitimate"—can be challenged [...] Another way to conceptualize this is flow determines function. That is, during oppositional praxis' dialectical-material struggles, terror and counterterror become anisotropic; i.e., determined by direction of flow insofar as power is concerned. Settler colonialism, then, flows power towards the state to benefit the elite and harm workers; it weaponizes Gothic poetics to maintain the historical-material standard—to keep the elite "on top" by dehumanizing the colonized, alienating and delegitimizing their own violence, terror and monstrous bodily expression as criminal within Cartesian copaganda (source).

Asprey also writes

Terror is the kissing cousin of force and, real or implied, is never far removed from the pages of history. To define (and condemn) terror from a peculiar social, economic, political, and emotional plane is to display a self-righteous attitude* that, totally unrealistic, is doomed to be disappointed by harsh facts (ibid.).

In other words, terror is a weapon. So is counterterror. The elite mandate and control these voices through violence, which they will use to silence those who speak out; i.e., with the thunder and prolificity of arms. Except you can't kill monsters, merely adopt them to causes that suit your aims. Like Medusa and her immortal, severed headBushnell's doom isn't something the elite can ever hope to control because it reverses the function of terror and counterterror normally envisioned and entertained by Western dogma; i.e., vis-à-vis Weber's monopoly of violence and Joseph Crawford's invention of terrorismbut also Asprey's paradox of terror as a proletarian weapon in a postcolonial age informed by past struggles surviving under modern empires. 

*The Left is not immune to this self-righteousness. Even Bad Empanada—someone I normally respect a great deal—smugly and disappointingly called Bushnell's death "a waste of time," overlooking its evocative power to confuse, terrify and overwhelm the Imperium, but also expose them. Bad Empanada wouldn't even acknowledge Bushnell's humanity in such an act, discounting his martyrdom through a surprising lack of solidarity. Certainly no one's perfect, and this doesn't negate the stellar work Bad Empanada has done, but I won't pretend his omission of Bushnell's value and character was anything but a gaff. "What would you be doing when genocide was occurring" is revealed in what you presently do when genocide is occurring, and Bad Empanada appears to be presently dismissing something important. I will do no such thing.

Put more simply, when those with security and privilege, but not so far gone that they sleep like stupid babies, puzzle over Bushnell's final moments, they will remember the words tied to those moments (and his image—of himself as "one of their own"): "Free Palestine!" 

What we do in life echoes in eternity, and Bushnell was not a dumb, unthinking monster. He was, like Shelley's Creature, resisting a Cartesian oppressor's system of thought. Not only did he superbly express the truth of the matter regarding class war as a postcolonial effort through a noble act of non-violence (the paradox of self-immolation); he addressed other, equally important and humane affairs before cashing in his chips: "Not only did he express his affection to friends*, but he also took the time to rehome his cat and distribute his possessions, including a fridge stocked with root beer" (source: Zahrah Patel's "US Airman Who Protested Gaza Genocide by Self Immolation Gave Away Cat First," 2024). In turn, those who survive him lead by his example while not needing to burn their bodies; they burn their uniforms, instead (source tweet: Shaykh Sulaiman, 2024). 

*He also deleted his Signal app before he died, protecting any and all anarchists he would have interacted with.

To that, Bushnell's penultimate words should also be considered: "We have power, we just don't hold it. In order to hold it, we have to organize to grasp it collectively" (source tweet: Fifty Shades of Whey, 2024). This concerns all parts of a web that is woven to lead us out of the labyrinth. For myself, my partner Bay handed* me research quotes as I wrote this piece, making it very much a group effort between ourselves, but also Bushnell and the Palestinians:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

—John Donne, 1624

*I said to Bay as they did, "You're helping me so much, my little orb weaver. You're the silk to my web."

Provided a proletarian function is maintained, it's possible to do and be two things at once; i.e., celebrate an American martyr and a Palestinian one—the sad reality being that many Americans, whether Bad Empanada likes it or not, will take heed of one over the other. I don't think this reality is right or fair, but it is true. Furthermore, there's no harm in acknowledging this tool to better assist in Palestinian liberation. Anonymity isn't good for martyrdom, and it really does need a name to work. To that, Aaron Bushnell believed in something greater than himself and died to uphold it by making his name synonymous with self-sacrifice: ending the Palestinian genocide by martyring himself within the Imperial Core. He died a hero for that cause and should be remembered as one, not dismissed for it. I, unlike some people, am not afraid to say that. Indeed, I can do so while holding my home country (and its critics) accountable at the same time; instead of digging in my heels simply to be right and win on the Internet, I can observe the man who could've been Perseus choosing to be Medusa to humanize those who have no choice—i.e., whose own acts of martyrdom are seen as backward and dated. Neither are, and that's the last paradox, the one to end this ode. 

Rest in peace, little soldier. The good die young, but your cause lives on forever in the hearts and minds of those who survive you.


Persephone van der Waard is an anarcho-Communist, sex worker, genderqueer activist and Gothic ludologist. She sometimes writes reviews, Gothic analyses, and interviews for fun; or does independent research for her PhD on Metroidvania and speedrunning every now and again. She's also an erotic artist and a writer. If you're interested in her work or curious about illustrated or written commissions, please refer to her website for more information.