Aaron Bushnell served with the US Air Force as part of the 531st Intelligence Support Squadron at a base in Texas. On Sunday, the 25-year-old travelled to the Israeli Embassy in Washington DC, doused himself with an accelerant of some sort, and set himself on fire, later dying of his injuries in hospital.

Before he did so, he said: “I will no longer be complicit in genocide. I am about to engage in an extreme act of protest, but compared to what people have been experiencing in Palestine at the hands of their colonisers, it’s not extreme at all.” He live-streamed his self-immolation on the gaming platform Twitch.

Here is a chilling collision of the digital and the analogue, the 21st century and the medieval. A US national (a member of the armed services, no less) felt he was digitally complicit in a war being fought on the other side of the world; and streamed his protest in the nowhere of cyberspace. Yet the form of his protest, which fits into a centuries-old tradition, could not have been more primal and embodied.

There’s a lot of talk these days about “luxury beliefs” — political positions or radical ideas that the privileged adopt as a mark of status, and whose trickle-down effects tend to be borne by the less privileged. There are lots of reasons — ulterior motives, if you like — to hold a political position or go on a march. You might hope to impress girls with your keffiyeh and combat trousers. You might hope to acquire radical chic, to fit in with your peers, to épater la bourgeoisie. You might like the thrill of a bit of mild crowd violence, in a safely policed environment, as you holler your demands to defund the police. There are any number of peripheral reasons you might wave a banner or put a brick through a window.

What you don’t do for a luxury belief is set yourself on fire. If you set yourself on fire, there isn’t the slightest chance that your act of protest is a pose. There’s an ungainsayable level of commitment there. The Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards, stung by music-press sneers that the band were wannabe punk-rock posers, once took the opportunity of an interview with the NME to carve “4 REAL” into his arm with a razorblade. Self-immolation is that gesture squared, that gesture cubed. It literalises the declaration made by Nelson Mandela on his commitment to jail in a Pretoria courtroom: “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

“It is a uniquely spectacular and paradoxical form of protest”

It is a uniquely spectacular and paradoxical form of protest, though. It is not instrumental in any obvious way. The suicide bomber is prepared to give his life to destroy his enemies. The soldier in war is prepared to risk his life to attack or defend a territory or a flag. But the self-immolator makes a gesture whose only feature is the demonstration that his cause is more important to him than his life: a suicide-bomber without victims.

Self-immolation doesn’t seek to build networks of resistance (unless, and improbably, by social contagion). It doesn’t threaten or cajole. It doesn’t negotiate or even imply negotiation. It’s at once flagrantly egotistical and self-annihilating. We could think of it as the symptom of a diseased or distressed mind — as something essentially nihilistic. But the systematic way in which it has been used as a form of protest century in, century out — and that it still holds an appeal in the modern age — makes that hard to sustain. If anything, it’s idealistic — inasmuch as it holds as an article of faith that self-destruction can carry a meaning beyond itself. It’s a ritual.

But what is that ritual doing? Every form of protest is, one way or another, a rhetorical appeal: it seeks to persuade. And most forms of rhetoric seek to gather the communicator and the audience into some sort of coalition: to make a “we” from a collection of disparate individuals. But sitting on a pavement in flames makes no appeal for solidarity or fraternity: it marks you out as a person absolutely isolated from his or her fellow man. It’s a communication that extinguishes the communicator in the process. It bids for martyrdom, sainthood, Buddha-nature.

“Sitting on a pavement in flames makes no appeal for solidarity or fraternity.”

It’s not an accident, then, that self-immolation as a form of protest is or has been primarily associated with religious traditions. (It comes, among other things, with the Dalai Lama’s qualified seal of approval as a “practice of non-violence”.) The most famous act of self-immolation in living memory is that of the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức — who set himself on fire in the summer of 1963 at a busy road junction in Saigon in protest at the regime’s persecution of his co-religionists. The press photographs of his burning went round the world. (Whether the monk would have approved his death being used on the cover of a multi-platinum album by Rage Against the Machine is a question for debate.)

And fire itself, as the medium, comes with religious overtones built in in any number of traditions: it’s a symbol of the divine. Fire is what humans stole from the gods. It’s the elemental symbol of our mastery and our hubris; it’s the basic human technology; and it’s the thing that the animal in us fears, that we flinch from by instinct. It’s the “red flower” in Kipling; Eliot’s “intolerable shirt of flame”. To embrace it as a manner of death has an intuitive symbolism that garnishes the sheer extremity of the act in a way that no other form of suicide can.

There’s an awful sublimity to it: an unspeakable impulse to violence, extravagantly articulated, but turned inwards. The 1963 image of that burning monk is powerful not just because it’s so shocking, but because the image is so beautiful. The semi-translucent curls and billows of the flame wrap the perfectly composed human figure at the centre of them: Quảng Đức sat unmoving, in the lotus position, as he burned. His death was a conscious and ostentatious act of self-possession in the face of (we can safely assume) unbelievable physical agony. The paradox, again: an act that appears to be an extreme response to powerlessness; an act that seeks to demonstrate superhuman control.

Is Quảng Đức the inspirer of Airman Bushnell’s extraordinary and terrible death? We can’t know, because the act consumes the only person who could tell us why they are doing it or what they hope to achieve. But we do know that self-immolation has been a feature of protests among even apparently secular Westerners for decades now. There were periodic self-immolations in the US in protest at the Vietnam war. It was the self-immolation of a Tunisian stallholder, Muhammad Bouazizi, that sparked the Tunisian revolution, and self-immolation was a feature of the wider Arab Spring.

Perhaps the enduring attraction of this terrifying, self-destructive gesture of resistance implies that it has become something dangerously fitted to the digital age. That it has, in fact, become a meme.

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