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Remembering Aaron Bushnell: Palestine and the Legacy of Self-Immolation

A People’s History of Harvard

By Julian J. Giordano
By Prince A. Williams, Crimson Opinion Writer
Prince A. Williams ’25, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a History concentrator in Adams House. His column, “A People’s History of Harvard,” runs bi-weekly on Fridays.

“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.”

Those are the words of 25-year-old serviceman Aaron Bushnell, who lit himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington D.C., protesting the United States’s support for Israel’s mass murder of what is currently estimated to be over 30,000 Palestinians.

As he burned to death, Bushnell screamed “Free Palestine!” over and over.

Bushnell’s extreme act of protest followed a long history of similarly desperate acts intended to arouse public outrage in the pursuit of justice — in Bushnell’s case for the Palestinian people.

Nearly 60 years ago, before Bushnell’s sacrifice for the people of Palestine, a man named Norman Morrison did the same for the Vietnamese people.

On Nov. 2, 1965, Morrison drove 40 miles with his baby daughter to Washington, D.C. Below the Pentagon office of United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Morrison doused himself in kerosene and set himself on fire.

Morrison’s sacrifice came at a crucial point in the genocidal war waged against the people of Vietnam. Months before, President Lyndon B. Johnson had authorized the mass use of napalm, a jellied gas that harshly burns its victims. Johnson’s bombing campaign, “Operation Rolling Thunder,” killed 30,000 Vietnamese civilians in three years. Morrison took his own life in protest of his country’s horrific crimes.

Daniel Ellsberg ’52, of Pentagon Papers fame, worked for McNamara as an adviser at the time of Norman Morrison’s self-immolation.

Ellsberg was a bright young man from Chicago. He graduated from Harvard College in 1952 and returned to get his Ph.D. in Economics, which he earned in 1962. Mass anti-war protests deeply affected Ellsberg, and he began to actively oppose the war.

With immense courage, Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, a tract of documents including classified government information about the war. The Pentagon Papers proved without a doubt to the American public what the antiwar movement had been saying for years: the U.S. government had been lying about the Vietnam War for a decade.

The countless lies and deception used by the U.S to justify intervention in Vietnam are being used today in Palestine.

Aaron Bushnell’s self-immolation indicates a profound change in consciousness we are experiencing.

People all over the United States, in the thousands and in the millions, have been involved in mass actions to protest the government’s support for the Israeli genocide against the Palestinian people. It is the actions of the U.S. government that have pushed folks like Bushnell and Morrison to go to such extreme lengths in order to raise the voices of those suffering from American-made weapons.

Today, the U.S is bankrolling the mass killing of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Around 1.5 million Palestinians have been pushed into the city of Rafah, which had a population of just 280,000 before Oct 7. Israel is threatening a ground invasion of Rafah, which officials inside the United States Agency for International Development say could present “catastrophic humanitarian consequences.”

Aaron Bushnell is right: What organizers are doing right now is what we would have done during chattel slavery. What we are doing right now is what we would have done during Jim Crow and white domestic terrorism.

We must take a stand now. We must speak up, protest, and organize. Those who ground themselves in history will never be troubled — if we remember and inform ourselves on the injustices that those before us stood tall against, we understand that victory will only come from the organized masses.

The last thing any of us want to be is well-adjusted to injustice.

The least we can do for Aaron Bushnell is to speak up. To remember him, it is imperative we join the mass movement for Palestine that is working each day on the right side of history.

Prince A. Williams ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a History concentrator in Adams House. His column, “A People’s History of Harvard” runs bi-weekly on Fridays.

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