Airman who torched himself outside Israeli Embassy grew up on controversial religious compound

The Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.
The Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. | Wikimedia Commons/APK,_D.C.jpg

The U.S. airman who set himself on fire outside the Israeli Embassy in Washington was reportedly raised in a religious compound that has weathered accusations of abuse and creating an environment of control, allegations that the group has publicly denied. 

Twenty-five-year-old Aaron Bushnell was an active-duty Air Force member when he doused himself in liquid and lit his body on fire, shouting "Free Palestine" as he burned on Sunday. 

Bushnell posted a video of his self-immolation to Twitch, which has since been removed. 

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As The Washington Post reported this week, Bushnell was raised in a religious group called the Community of Jesus, according to Susan Wilkins, a former member from 1970 to 2005. Wilkins said she knew Bushnell and his family when they lived on the Orleans, Massachusetts-based compound, a claim the outlet reported others have corroborated. She said that she had heard from others since her departure that Bushnell had also left the compound.

She also claimed that Community of Jesus members often join the military, which she described as moving from "one high-control group to another high-control group."

Bonnie Zampino, a former member of the group in the 1980s, told the outlet that many who leave become involved in social justice causes. 

"A lot of us that got out are very much into social justice, trying to defend those who don't or can't defend themselves because that is what we went through," Zampino said. 

The Christian Post reached out to the Community of Jesus, but a receptionist said he did not know of anyone to whom he could forward the call for comment. CP sent the group a message, but the Community of Jesus did not respond by press time. 

As The Ottawa Citizen reported in February 2020, former students won a class-action lawsuit against a school with ties to the Community of Jesus. The students alleged that punishments at the school consisted of public shaming and humiliation as a disciplinary technique. The school was accused of holding assemblies a few times a year to call out those who broke the rules.

In 2021, former member Carrie Buddington told WBZ-TV that she was "repeatedly traumatized" during her time with the Community of Jesus and is "still haunted" by an incident where she was allegedly forced to give up her baby in the 1980s.

Bushnell's LinkedIn page shows that he worked from 2015 to 2017 at the Community of Jesus' publishing house, Paraclete Press, where he maintained and supported IT infrastructure.

Bushnell later joined the Air Force in 2020.

In an anonymous statement to The Washington Post, a friend of Bushnell's said he spoke with him about the sacrifices necessary to be effective anarchists less than two weeks before the self-immolation. 

"I hope you'll understand. I love you," Bushnell wrote in a message reviewed by The Washington Post. "This doesn't even make sense, but I feel like I'm going to miss you."

On Sunday, Bushnell sent the friend a copy of his will, leaving the neighbor a few bottles of root beer. He then set himself on fire to protest the Israel-Hamas war, which began after the terrorist group's Oct. 7 attack killed over 1,200 people in southern Israel and sparked Israel's military offensive in Gaza.  

Multiple friends of Bushnell's told the newspaper that the airman expressed disagreements about the United States' involvement in the war. The friends said they did not know Bushnell planned to kill himself outside of the Israeli Embassy. 

According to Levi Pierpont, who met Bushnell during basic training in May 2020, Bushnell grew interested in protesting "state-sanctioned violence" after the death of George Floyd in May 2020 under police custody in Minnesota.

In January, Bushnell told Pierpont that he wanted to do political activism when he left the military. 

The Israeli Embassy confirmed to CBS News that none of its members were injured as a result of Bushnell's protest. A video posted by independent journalist Talia Jane shows the Air Force member declaring that he would "no longer be complicit in genocide" before setting himself on fire. 

The Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry says that nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been killed since the war began but doesn't differentiate between combatants and civilians. The Israel Defense Forces state they have killed over 12,000 operatives in Gaza along with 1,000 terrorists inside Israel, according to The Times of Israel

Samantha Kamman is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: Follow her on Twitter: @Samantha_Kamman

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