Opinion: American airman patriot: ‘I will no longer be complicit in genocide’

In this June 11, 1963, file photo, Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, sets himself on fire and burns to death at a highway intersection in Saigon, Vietnam.

In this June 11, 1963, file photo, Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, sets himself on fire and burns to death at a highway intersection in Saigon, Vietnam. Malcolm Browne / AP


Published: 03-09-2024 6:00 AM

Robert Azzi is a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter. His columns are archived at robertazzitheother.substack.com

As a child of the 60s I remember being drawn to the photograph capturing the horror of the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the American-backed South Vietnamese government led by Ngô Đình Diệm.

Drawn to the horror of fire.

As Thích Quảng Đức burned it is reported that he sat perfectly still.

I remember fully understanding, as I later grew into my chosen profession of photojournalist, what photographer Malcolm Browne meant when he said that while taking the photo of Quảng Đức’s self-immolation: “I just kept shooting and shooting and shooting and that protected me from the horror of the thing.”

What protects us today, I wonder, from “the horror of the thing?”

As an Arab American Muslim photojournalist, I remember well the horror of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit and vegetable street vendor who in 2010 set himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid and triggered the Arab Spring.

I cheered the promise of the Arab Awakening.

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I remember cheering my daughter when she flew to Egypt to join students and activists in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, knowing she would witness a historic moment. Indeed, I was jealous; in my decades of engagement in the Middle East I never thought I would witness a moment when the people would overcome fear and turn into the streets.

I remember cheering the righteous moment when Egypt’s President Mubarak fell, ending an era of military rule by Generals Naguib, Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak that had extended beyond half a century: nearly 60 years of repression, torture and exploitation, often supported by an imperial America that believed its security interests trumped human rights.

I cheered the Arab Spring, an uprising not only against repressive Arab regimes but against the United States, especially after America’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and its ongoing complicity and support of non-democratic regimes throughout the region.

I lament that the promise of the Arab Spring failed, in part because of America’s continuing alignments with repressive and undemocratic forces, as it does to this day, with its support of the colonial-settler state of Israel’s unrelenting genocide and ethnic cleansing in Palestine.

What protects us today from “the horror of the thing?”

Today, as an American, I mourn America’s abandonment of many of the aspirational values — however yet unfulfilled some of them might still be — that set our country apart from all other nations.

Values that include embracing and understanding that all peoples are created equal.

Recently, I’ve struggled while thinking about how to remember the horror of seeing a video, live-streamed, of the self-immolation of a young American, Aaron Bushnell, in Washington D.C., a 25-year-old American airman unrelated geographically, racially, and ethnically to the Levant.

Aaron Bushnell was a cyber defense operations specialist with the 531st Intelligence Support Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio, TX, who believed he was created equal, and that he was being failed by the government he had enlisted to serve, being failed by the promise of America.

Two Sundays ago, in the afternoon, Bushnell, as he approached the Israeli Embassy in Washington, filmed himself as he declared:

“I am an active-duty member of the United States Air Force, and 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.”

He set his phone down on the ground, propping it up to continue filming. He poured a flammable liquid over his head, put on a hat and set himself on fire with a lighter.


He later died in a D.C. hospital: his final words were “Free Palestine.”

Did I only imagine hearing the click?


It is reported that Aaron Bushnell’s final message on Facebook read, “Many of us like to ask ourselves, ‘What would I do if I was alive during slavery? Or the Jim Crow South? Or apartheid? What would I do if my country was committing genocide?’ The answer is, you’re doing it. Right now.” (That message appears to be no longer visible online.)

We know little about Aaron Bushnell — airman, anarchist, American — but we know that he belonged to a generation of Americans, Gen Z, who are more sympathetic with Palestinians than with Israelis, more sympathetic to the oppressed than the oppressors, more a patriot than a profiteer.

In his will, he left his savings to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund. To date, thousands of children have died; thousands of others today, barely subsisting on animal fodder, dangle from the precipice of famine, all of whom are our flesh and blood.


To mourn Aaron Bushnell we must come to understand that his last act was a human act, founded in hope and demanding change.

Aaron Bushnell gifted us with his most precious possession, his life.

In that offering, Aaron — if I may presume to call him by his given name — helped me understand that self-immolation is a nonviolent act of despair, a singular act that involves no other person, that “to burn oneself by fire” as Thich Nhat Hanh understood it, “is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance.”

So important that Aaron Bushnell carefully choreographed his final moments and demanded we watch him burn.