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What we know about the airman who immolated himself in front of the Israeli Embassy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A warning that parts of this next story may be hard to listen to. Here in Washington yesterday, a 25-year-old active duty U.S. airman filmed himself walking in uniform toward the gate of the Israeli embassy. He stated that he was about to make an extreme protest against Israel's actions in Gaza, and he then set himself on fire. After being rushed to the hospital, the airman died of his injuries. NPR's Quil Lawrence is covering this story. Hi, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: This was such a shocking incident. What can you tell us about the airman who died?

LAWRENCE: It's still pretty basic. He was an Air Force software engineer named Aaron Bushnell out of San Antonio, Texas. He'd been in the Air Force for nearly four years after going to college, where he'd studied IT. The Pentagon today called it tragic and expressed condolences to his family, but they wouldn't comment further, which is their policy when they notify next of kin. A housing charity that Bushnell worked with told Texas Public Radio that Bushnell planned this quite carefully. He made a will, and he specified that his savings should be donated to the Palestine Children's Relief Fund and everything down to arranging that a neighbor would take care of his cat.

SHAPIRO: And there's no question that this was a protest against Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza, right?

LAWRENCE: Yes. Bushnell - his last post on Facebook included the line, what would I do if my country was committing genocide? The answer is you're doing it right now. And the video he made of himself - it was obtained by an independent journalist named Talia Jane. She posted it on social media. And Bushnell clearly said that he was protesting the war in Gaza, and he shouted, free Palestine, several times before he collapsed. We should be clear. Critics of Israel often use terms like genocide and apartheid to describe Israel's treatment of Palestinians, and the Jewish state vehemently rejects that and claims self-defense.

SHAPIRO: How significant is the fact that he was on active duty and did this while wearing his uniform?

LAWRENCE: Well, serving military are not allowed to engage in political acts. The U.S. troops are supposed to be outside of the political fray. But we saw in the January 6 attack on the Capitol there were several active duty troops involved there and veterans. Some of them - many of them have since been charged. And the fear that the military's politicized is usually a concern from the other end of the political spectrum - that right-wing groups, hate groups would sometimes recruit veterans, or they would encourage their members to join and get trained by the U.S. military. In this case, the protest came from the other side, from the left. But the military is just as diverse as America, and there are all kinds of backgrounds and viewpoints. Protests like this are incredibly rare.

SHAPIRO: Rare. But as shocking as it is, self-immolation has a history as a form of political protest in this country.

LAWRENCE: Yes and elsewhere. It goes back to a famous photograph you may remember of a Buddhist monk who set himself a light in Saigon in 1963. A couple years later, a Quaker man in America burned himself to death outside the Pentagon to protest U.S. involvement in that war. Also, the beginning of the Arab Spring in Tunisia started when a young vegetable seller set himself on fire. That launched a wave of revolts. And then just last December here in the U.S., a protester who had a Palestinian flag did that outside the Israeli consulate in Atlanta. But I cannot remember any case of an active duty military member doing anything like this.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Quil Lawrence. Thank you, Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.