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U.S. Airman’s Winding Path Ended in Self-Immolation to Protest Israel

Dressed in his U.S. Air Force uniform, Aaron Bushnell walked up to the Israeli embassy in Washington one afternoon this week and calmly described his intention to “engage in an extreme act of protest” against Israel’s military offensive in Gaza.

He proceeded to pour a flammable liquid over his buzz-cut head, pulled his camouflage cap tightly over his forehead and lit himself on fire. “Free Palestine!” he shouted several times before collapsing onto the cement.

In the days since his stunning act, which Mr. Bushnell captured on a livestream, friends and relatives have been trying to understand how a young man they once knew as a shy, thoughtful boy in an isolated Christian community in Massachusetts, who went on to become a senior airman working on cyberdefense in Texas, came to mount such a final, fatal protest.

“It’s hard to wrap my head around,” said Ashley Schuman, 26, who has known Mr. Bushnell since childhood. “I’m just like, ‘How? How did you get here?’”

Mr. Bushnell’s self-immolation has spurred a flurry of vigils in his honor, prompted new protests against Israel’s attacks and led to criticism from some who viewed the protest as a suicidal act that should not be celebrated.

His was the second such protest in the United States in recent months. In December, a woman with a Palestinian flag lit herself on fire outside of the Israeli consulate building in Atlanta; she was not identified, and she has remained hospitalized, currently listed in stable condition. On Wednesday, Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, asked the Defense Department whether Mr. Bushnell had ever shown any “extremist leanings” in the past.

Recent writings from Mr. Bushnell, 25, suggest that he had carefully planned his action to focus attention on Israel’s assault on Palestinians in Gaza, where the local health ministry says nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been killed. Israel launched its campaign in October after a Hamas-led attack in which roughly 1,200 Israelis were killed and about 250 more people were taken hostage, according to Israeli authorities.

In the hours before Mr. Bushnell’s protest, he sent an email to several independent news outlets with the subject line “Against genocide” that included a link to a website where a video of his self-immolation later appeared. “I ask that you make sure that the footage is preserved and reported on,” he wrote. Mr. Bushnell had also sent a will to a friend in recent days, allocating his possessions.

In recent years, according to those who knew him, Mr. Bushnell had grown increasingly distant from both his conservative upbringing and his career in the military, throwing himself into leftist and anarchist activism, talking often about alleviating poverty and opposing capitalism. Along the way, he came to reject the small, deeply religious enclave along Cape Cod Bay where he was raised, friends said.

Some former members of the neighborhood, known as the Community of Jesus, have alleged that they were psychologically abused. Mr. Bushnell’s family members have not spoken publicly, and a woman who answered the phone at the listed number for the Community of Jesus declined to respond or take a message.

Ms. Schuman, who, like Mr. Bushnell, was born into the community, said both of them dealt with anxiety in their teenage years from the high expectations and tight restrictions imposed by the community’s leaders and teachers. They attended a communal home-school there, although Mr. Bushnell also spent a year at the public high school.

In the summer of 2016, after graduating high school, he visited Israel and the West Bank on a trip led by the Community of Jesus that brought members to historic locations in the Bible, Ms. Schuman said. She did not recall any significant discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the trip, but said that the students spent a day in the West Bank city of Bethlehem and spoke with several students at Bethlehem University, a Catholic college there.

Mr. Bushnell on a visit to Jerusalem in July 2016, after he graduated high school.Credit…Ashley Schuman

“I know that trip meant a lot to every single one of us in the group,” she said.

In the years after Ms. Schuman and Mr. Bushnell graduated high school, they each began to consider whether to remain in the community. The community’s constitution, known as “The Rule of Life,” describes a system of advancement in which adherents can, over several years, reach a status that includes taking a vow of membership “for life.” Instead, Mr. Bushnell told Ms. Schuman in the fall of 2019 that he would be leaving.

He moved out of the community, where he had lived with his parents and younger brother, and worked at a pawnshop elsewhere in Massachusetts for a brief period before beginning active duty in the Air Force in May 2020, stationed in San Antonio.

Ms. Schuman, who had also chosen to leave the community, said they spoke regularly by phone about handling the transition; Mr. Bushnell told her that he had been talking to a therapist and urged her to also see one, she said.

In their calls, Mr. Bushnell told Ms. Schuman that he spent most of his working hours behind a computer. He often sounded stressed, she said, and seemed to lack the enthusiasm that he had shown during boot camp or back in school, when he was a quiet boy who would grow passionate about history lessons and C.S. Lewis novels.

Away from work, he seemed increasingly intent on solving the problem of homelessness. Ms. Schuman said she grew concerned when Mr. Bushnell told her that he had been sending a substantial amount of money to a woman in another state who said she was a homeless mother. Ms. Schuman believed the two had never met.

“He didn’t really share very much, other than wanting me to keep her in my prayers,” Ms. Schuman recalled. “I was just like, ‘Whoa, Aaron, you don’t even know this person.’ But I think what fueled him was that he was helping somebody else less fortunate than him.”

Into 2021, Mr. Bushnell still spoke of possibly returning to the commune on Cape Cod one day, something that was difficult for Ms. Schuman to hear as she sought a new life away from it. Eventually, they stopped speaking.

Another friend said that Mr. Bushnell complained mildly about his Air Force job — shifting schedules, lack of sleep — and occasionally spoke of his disagreements with the U.S. military over past conflicts, such as the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In November 2022, fresh off a vacation to Hawaii with his younger brother, Mr. Bushnell showed up alone at an event hosted by the Party for Socialism and Liberation in San Antonio, where he quickly made a new group of friends.

Lupe Barboza, 32, said she and her friends invited him to join their mutual aid group’s weekly visits to homeless encampments. She said Mr. Bushnell told her group, known as San Antonio Collective Care, that his political views had shifted drastically not long after joining the military.

“He said that he kind of went from one extreme — the conservative beliefs that he had grown up around — to the opposite, forming his anarchist, anti-imperialist values,” Ms. Barboza said. “And he said it was a very quick shift, and he just said it went from one extreme to the other.”

Mr. Bushnell volunteered to help with the mutual aid group’s internal communications and mission statement. He set up a discussion channel on Discord, a messaging app, and initiated a “constitutionalizing” effort, drawing up a list of questions for members to answer in writing.

“I would like to think that I bring to the table an open mind, a desire to help people and to learn, and a commitment to radical ideals,” he wrote in one of his own responses, in February 2023.

He also wrote about being frustrated over his difficulty connecting with new people.

“While I care deeply about people, I tend to find social interactions very challenging, especially with strangers or anyone I’m not close with,” he said.

But soon after leading that endeavor, he announced that he needed to take a step back from the group because he was dealing with some trauma from his past that had resurfaced, Ms. Barboza said. Still, he kept in touch with many of his friends in the group.

He told them he was looking forward to leaving the military when his enlistment was up in the spring of this year, Ms. Barboza said. On his LinkedIn profile, he wrote that he was “truly passionate about writing software and can’t wait to help drive innovation in the civilian world.”

Mr. Bushnell’s friends in San Antonio threw him a party at a karaoke bar last fall before he moved to Ohio.Credit…Lupe Barboza

Late last year, Mr. Bushnell had decided that he would move to Ohio to participate in the military’s SkillBridge program, which allows members nearing the end of their service to be paid while training with or working for private companies. He made a flier asking someone to take his cat, Sugar, and sang old songs — a Bon Jovi tune among them — at a karaoke send-off hosted by his friends.

Friends in San Antonio said he did not share with them the nature of the past trauma that he was dealing with.

Susan Wilkins, 59, who also lived in the Community of Jesus from 1970 to 2005 before abandoning it, said she was not close with Mr. Bushnell and his family but knew them and worried that he might not have had adequate support to transition into a less-structured world.

“I can see that if you’ve grown up in a somewhat restrictive environment, anarchy has attractions,” she said.

Ms. Schuman, like other former community members, has struggled to understand Mr. Bushnell’s fatal protest.

“The extreme measures, I will never be able to get behind that,” she said. “But from where we grew up, and having no say in what we really wanted or believed in, it is admirable what he did for people who don’t have a voice right now.”

Air Force officials have not discussed the incident in detail. When a reporter asked the Air Force’s top spokesman this week whether Mr. Bushnell’s protest might signify a broader discord within the ranks over civilian deaths in Gaza, he declined to directly answer.

“This certainly is a tragic event,” Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder said at a news conference. “We do extend our condolences to the airman’s family.”

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting. Kirsten Noyes contributed research.

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