On Sunday 25 February, US Air Force serviceman Aaron Bushnell, 25, set himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy in Washington DC. He did so in protest of the ‘genocide’ that Israel is perpetrating against the people of Gaza as well as the US military and political establishment’s position of the matter. Bushnell also stated that he considered his actions ‘insignificant’ in comparison to the suffering of Palestinians. “Our ruling class has normalised this,” he said in reference to Israel’s actions. He then expressed a preference for Palestine’s liberation.

Videos and photographs of Bushnell’s death have circulated on social media since the event. However, mainstream news media — restricted in what gruesomeness they can or are willing to show — have been hesitant to cover the incident to the extent that some believe it newsworthy of. Bushnell’s actions, thus, provide an opportunity to unpack some of the media dynamics that have emerged since. However, first it is important to understand the act of self-immolation in more detail.

Death by Fire

Self-immolation is an act of extreme suicide on account of the pain experienced before death, the trauma that those who witness it will likely have, and the risk that death itself will not be achieved if someone appears with water, a fire extinguisher, or a blanket.

Beyond an act of suicide though, self-immolation is also an act of capital punishment against the self. The method of death in suicide is a fascinating area of psychological research. To die in the most painful way imaginable, alone on a street, is likely a reflection of a crisis of self being experienced at such depth that a tortured end is considered deserving within the mind. Bushnell essentially acted as his own judge and jury here.

However, there is also an element of ego within the decision to self-immolate when it is performed publicly and on account of political beliefs. The individual may have a sense of the imagined legacy that the event will bring — both for themselves and for the cause — which has often been influenced by interpretations of selected historical moments of martyrdom. Bushnell, for example, grew up in a small Christian community in Massachusetts and may have had the crucifixion of Christ as a reference point for his actions. Many people who attempt suicide are also influenced by depictions of suicide in popular culture.

Beyond this aspect of ego, the act of public self-immolation is also a choreographed performance. Bushnell broadcast it live from his phone, calmly stating his reasons as he walked to the embassy dressed in his military uniform. The uniform was part of Bushnell’s choreography. It added to the dramatization of the protest on account of him not being an everyday citizen. However, it also reveals his shame at his own participation in the ‘genocide’, for he is ultimately desecrating his state-issued uniform in the process.

He pours flammable liquid on himself and stands calmly as the fire takes effect. Here then, it may be that he believed the intervention to be one of such profundity as to alter the course of history on account of the moral consciousness or clarity that it will induce in others. History, however, tells us that this outcome is very much the exception rather than the rule when incidents such as these occur. The act of climate protester Wynn Bruce, who set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court in Washington DC in 2022, received scant coverage by mainstream news media and has done nothing to prevent us from continuing to hurtle towards ecological oblivion.

In contrast, the most often used reference point for an effective act of self-immolation as political protest is from 1963 when Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức set himself on fire at a busy junction in central Saigon, South Vietnam. This was in protest at the Diem administration’s treatment of Buddhists. The event inspired other sympathisers in Vietnam to do similar. US President John F. Kennedy acknowledged the emotional power of the images that circulated in newspapers around the world of Duc. However, the US decision to assist in the toppling of the regime through a CIA-backed coup later that year, and to eventually put boots on the ground in Vietnam in 1965, was on account of US self-interest rather than any moral imperative. The image of Duc likely helped though.

Finally, this form of suicide can also be strategic in as much as Bushnell will have been aware of how previous whistleblowers who have sought to expose ethically questionable activities by the US military, and other agencies, have been treated by the mainstream news media, the public and the state alike. This is likely why he broadcast the event himself rather than relying on TV cameras to show up, even if prompted. Technically, Bushnell had nothing to expose in the same way that Edward Snowden or Bradley/Chelsea Manning did because US allegiance to Israel is well-known. Instead, this was a man apparently motivated by his deep sense of wrong over what Israel has done, what the US supports, and what he, as a member of the US military, had ultimately contributed to.

News Media Coverage of Bushnell’s Death

There are editorial debates and public disagreements about the coverage of all news stories, and many academics within media, communications and culture studies have offered models to explain why mainstream news media behaves and presents the content that it does. Perhaps the most well-known of these studies was by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their book Manufacturing Consent, first published in 1988, which explains the five influential filters through which all mainstream news media content must pass.

There is little controversy in stating that mainstream news media have been hesitant to give Bushnell’s death the prominence that many people on social media think it should receive. Moreover, that some of the coverage the story has received has been in the form of character assassin or so-called ‘hit pieces’ about Bushnell highlights several aspects of mainstream news media culture — particularly its allegiance to the hegemonic coalition.

Bushnell has been depicted as mentally unstable. He may well have been, but he does not show apparent signs of this in his video immediately before his death and has no publicly-available record of psychological evaluation. In the UK press alone, newspaper articles have referred to him as ‘disturbed’, and an anarchist with a sectarian upbringing. This focus on the personal in the aftermath of events like these is a common propaganda tactic to encourage the delegitimising of the individual, framing him as a radical in order to divert attention away from the political arguments his actions could stimulate. Interestingly, Bushnell has been spared the ‘antisemitism’ label, possibly because he has not said anything that could be interpreted in that way. Instead, focus has been on his involvement with the religious group the Community of Jesus, which some in the press have labelled as a ‘cult’, as distinct from an accepted institution of deity worship.

The character assassination of Bushnell, in the corporate media, also appears to be aimed at discouraging more acts of politically-motivated suicide outside embassies. The concept of the Werther Effect pertaining to suicide contagion is well-trodden ground in psychology and avoidance of occurrences of the phenomenon is the stated editorial reason for why mainstream news media are hesitant to cover such incidents. Whereas the extensive news coverage of the demise and then death of the Irish Republican prisoner Bobby Sands in 1981, after 66 days on hunger strike, inspired more political prisoners in Northern Irish prisons to do similar and was a watershed moment in political — media relations.

It is also interesting that the dominant news narrative surrounding Bushnell omitted to include the reaction of one of the officers from the Israeli embassy. The footage shows one pointing a gun while another tries to extinguish the fire. He shouts to his colleague, “I don’t need guns. I need fire extinguishers.” This aspect of the story was marginalised to peripheral publications like the Reason and caused the historian Asad Dandia to highlight that, “[f]rom the local to the federal level, the state meets every challenge with an opportunity to kill.” While this point illustrates the broader socio-political issue of protest and dissent, regardless of its ethics, being confronted with a disproportionate and often militarised response, it also highlights the extent to which journalism is unwilling to challenge the state on the merits of these political activities.


Journalism has a tri-purpose in a democratic society. To be the watchdog of the powerful, to educate and inform citizens so as to improve their political participation, and to engage in community building and civic consciousness-raising. To this end, the Bushnell incident provides further evidence that the mainstream news media’s performance — and its intent to provide such coverage — is severely lacking. They may more accurately be described as the lapdog of the powerful.

(Featured Image: “47.Gather.AaronBushnellVigil.WDC.26February2024” by Elvert Barnes is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)


  • Lucia Hubinska

    Lucia Hubinska is a lecturer and early career researcher in the field of media and communications based at University College of Football Business (UCFB) in London. She has a master’s degree in Public Relations and Strategic Communication from the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona and the University of Stirling in Scotland. Her research and teaching interests revolve around propaganda, power dynamics in social and digital media and visual communication. Lucia is a PhD candidate at Nottingham Trent University, under the supervision of Dr Colin Alexander and Dr Marco Bohr. The project focuses on the role of visual communication and propaganda during COVID-19. She is a press freedom activist and has campaigned for the release of Julian Assange.

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  • Colin Alexander

    Colin Alexander, PhD, is Senior Lecturer in Political Communications at Nottingham Trent University. He has spent much of his academic career writing about propaganda and political communications more broadly in various historical and contemporary circumstances. Beyond this, he is interested in communication ethics, critical philanthropy studies, colonialism and the British colonial experience. He is the author of China and Taiwan in Central America: Engaging Foreign Publics in Diplomacy (2014) and Administering Colonialism and War (2019). He is also the editor of The Frontiers of Public Diplomacy: Hegemony, Morality and Power in the International Sphere (2021). During the pandemic he became one of the most prominent in-post British academics to critically discuss the role of propaganda in manufacturing public compliance. His Coronavirus Propaganda blog series is available here:

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