US airman who burned himself to death at Israeli embassy had anarchist past

<span>A police officer stands nearby a vigil for Aaron Bushnell outside the Israeli embassy on Monday in Washington DC.</span><span>Photograph: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images</span>
A police officer stands nearby a vigil for Aaron Bushnell outside the Israeli embassy on Monday in Washington DC.Photograph: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

A uniformed airman who burned himself to death in protest over the US’s role in Israel’s military strikes in Gaza was an anarchist who grew up in a strict religious sect with links to a school in Canada that “controlled, intimidated and humiliated” students, it was reported on Tuesday.

Related: US air force member dies after setting himself on fire outside Israeli embassy

Aaron Bushnell, an active-duty US air force senior airman from San Antonio, Texas, died in hospital on Sunday several hours after he doused himself in a flammable liquid and set himself alight outside the Israeli embassy in Washington DC.

Bushnell, 25, livestreamed the self-immolation on the social media platform Twitch, declaring he “will no longer be complicit in genocide” and shouting “Free Palestine” as he started the fire.

Less than two weeks before the episode, Bushnell and a friend spoke by phone about what “sacrifices” were needed for them to be effective as anarchists, the Washington Post reported on Monday, having spoken with several people who knew him.

Bushnell did not mention anything violent or self-sacrificial during the call, the Post said, citing the friend.

But on Sunday morning, just before setting himself on fire at about 1pm outside the embassy on International Drive, he texted the friend, whom the Post did not name to protect his anonymity. “I hope you’ll understand. I love you,” Bushnell wrote. “This doesn’t even make sense, but I feel like I’m going to miss you.”

He also sent the friend a copy of his will, the newspaper added. In the will, Bushnell gave his pet cat to a neighbor and root beers in his fridge to the friend.

According to the air force, Bushnell was a cyber defense operations specialist with the 531st intelligence support squadron at joint base San Antonio. He had been on active duty since May 2020. And he was set for discharge in May after a four-year term of duty.

The Post spoke with some people who described his upbringing on a religious compound in Orleans, Massachusetts, run by a Benedictine monastic religious group called the Community of Jesus. He was a young man who liked karaoke and The Lord of the Rings, they said.

The church, however, has a darker side, at least according to a lawsuit in Canada brought by former students of a now-closed Ontario school where many officials were alleged to be members of the US-based religious group, according to the Post.

Those officials, the students said, ran a “charismatic sect” that “created an environment of control, intimidation and humiliation that fostered and inflicted enduring harms on its students”.

The school and church denied the allegations. But an appeals court last year awarded the former students C$10.8m (US$8m).

Susan Wilkins, who left the church in 2005, when she said Bushnell was still a member, told the Post it was common for members of the Community of Jesus to join the military, from “one high-control group to another high-control group”.

At the time of his death, Bushnell was making plans to transition back into civilian life in May. He told another friend, quoted by the Post, that he considered leaving the air force early to “take a stand” against what he saw as state-sponsored violence, especially US support for Israel in Gaza. But he decided he was close enough to the end of his contracted term of duty to be able to stick it out.

Officials at Southern New Hampshire University said Bushnell had enrolled for an online computer science degree course in August 2023 and was registered for a new term beginning next week.

  • In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on 988lifeline.org, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org