Flames of Revolution: Aaron Bushnell Against Liberal Ideology

On February 25, 2024, Aaron Bushnell, a 25-year-old Air Force service member, died after setting himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington DC, shouting “free Palestine”. The searing moral clarity of this act of martyrdom scared the ruling class. It wasn’t long before the dominant ideological apparatuses swooped in to neutralize the force of this event. Four days after the self-immolation of Bushnell, Graeme Wood published an article in The Atlantic entitled “Stop Glorifying Self-Immolation”. The write-up criticizes Bushnell as a fanatic whose apparent “determination and sincerity” only hides his insensitivity to the violence that Israelis have faced at the hands of Hamas. Wood thinks that only a “deeply sick” person can “celebrate and encourage this behavior, or even to be moved by it”. The alternative consists in a supposedly “serene starting point”: since both Palestinians and Jews have longstanding ties to Israeli land, it is crucial for Israel to respect the rights of Palestinians to remain without coercion or mistreatment, while also ensuring the safety and dignity of Jewish residents. This form of peaceful “conversation” replaces the fanatic dangers of impassioned acts.

Wood’s base assumption is incorrect to the core. Palestine and Israel are not equivalent sides that need to be listened to in a tolerant manner. The latter is a settler-colonial entity that has an in-built drive towards the extermination of the former. In this situation of stark asymmetry, there can be no tranquil “negotiation” between Israel and Palestine. The interests of both of them stand in irreconcilable opposition to each other. This must be surprising to hear for Wood, whose liberal mind can only see “rational” individuals negotiating with each other. The pacifism of Wood is reliant on the hope that, no matter their different historical situations, individuals will ultimately come to see that conversing with each other is the most “reasonable” manner of solving disputes. However, reality is more complex than that. In concrete social formations, we are presented not with decontextualized, “rational” human beings but with individuals who are always-already enmeshed in a network of socio-historic relations. These relations shape how human beings think of themselves and articulate their interests. In relation to Israel-Palestine dynamics, this means that there are no morally pristine human beings who possess the enlightened capacity to frame their “rational” interests through dialogue. There are only concrete individuals with concrete interests, namely Zionist settlers and Palestinians fighting for their land.

In the battle against colonialism, morality is supplied not by the reasonableness of the liberal individual but by the counter-power of the resisting forces. The supreme good lies in the effective capacity of the colonized to take back their land and life from the colonizers. Every individual action is to be evaluated from the standpoint of the struggle. When this is not done, we are left with the abstract notions of “moderation” that Wood prizes so much. There can be no “moderation” in a situation that involves two diametrically opposed forces. There can only be the militant movement of the oppressed against the interests of the oppressors. “Negotiation” has to be replaced by the collective “fanaticism,” the “determination and sincerity” of the colonized people. Wood considers this anti-colonial movement to be superfluous. He basically asks: why can’t Israelis and Palestinians just talk to each other peacefully? Why couldn’t have Bushnell peacefully put forward his point instead of burning himself? The very standard of normality that Wood erects here – peaceful dialogue – is a figment of his imagination. How can Palestinians talk when they are being starved and slaughtered en masse? How can other people organize a conversation in support of Palestine when the entire apparatuses of repression and manipulation keep working against them?

Protests can’t be as comfortable as the peacefulness of dialogue. They are a source of discomfort and disruption. The situation in Palestine is not a “dispute” that can be solved through the exchange of different opinions. There are actual interests involved here, pitting the national liberation of Palestinians against the Israel-US axis of oppression. One can’t just have reasonable disagreements over the Zionist massacre of Palestinians. Any such disagreement is a material struggle between antagonistic groups that can be solved only when the oppressed overwhelm the oppressor. This antagonistic, unruly dimension of the anti-colonial struggle irks Wood. He wants to retreat into his abode of serenity. That’s why he rails against “spectacular atrocities” and the “death cultism of Hamas”. Bushnell’s self-immolation symbolized the utter disorientation that a revolutionary struggle involves. The anti-colonial movement is equivalent to the agony that Bushnell experienced in the final moments of his life. Out of this agony arises the cry of “Free Palestine,” the dream of liberation, that Bushnell kept repeating as his last words. His self-immolation invites us not to commit suicide but to realize how the struggle against Zionism involves real antagonisms that can be solved only through the destabilization of the existing reality and the deprivation of the power possessed by colonialists. Hamas’ October 7, 2023, attack was a similar moment of interruption, wherein the frozen reality maintained by Israel was blasted apart by the resolve of the Palestinian people. Wood denigrates these anti-hierarchical acts of dislocation because he wants a solution without a revolution. But as Nikolai Bukharin said, “The great revolution which is turning the old world upside down cannot go smoothly; the great revolution cannot be carried out in white gloves; it is born in pain”.

Yanis Iqbal is a student and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India. Read other articles by Yanis.