There’s a great debate taking place all around the world today, with the news that the U.S has successfully killed Osama Bin Laden, in Abbottabad, Pakistan today. The debate has focused on the reaction felt throughout the world, with spontaneous crowds cheering the news that this mass murder and enemy of the U.S and all her allies, who has eluded capture for the last decade, has finally been apprehended and killed. Indeed, the news of his death has undoubtedly brought some much needed closure to many of the families of the victims of 9/11 and others all around the world, for whom there is undoubtedly some much needed catharsis to be found in these celebrations.
And yet these scenes of wild celebration and jubilation have spurred a very intense debate. How ought we respond to this news of the death of our enemies? Is it wrong to be relieved that a man who declared war on the U.S and her allies, and who rejoiced at the bloodshed of innocents is no longer a threat? Surely not. However, does the celebration of a killing, even of one such as Osama – as close to evil as humanly possible, somehow impugn our own moral character?
I was motivated to write this when I recently stumbled upon one such debate on facebook. Some friends were celebrating and others were questioning the motives of this joy.
“We rejoice not because of the death of a man, but because justice was done, and the world knows that the United States of America will not stand idly by the blood of her citizens. We are patient and have long memories. No man can take the lives of innocents with impunity”,
said one friend. And when another responded doubting that such a thoughtful and well articulated view was really the motivation behind the spontaneous chants of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” outside the white house, it produced a response that has been mirrored all around the internet in other debates of this kind: “I really don’t get all the soul searching about joy at the death of a man whose life was dedicated to trying to kill all of us whenever he had the opportunity.”
Personally, my initial gut reaction was also positive. I didn’t feel the urge to celebrate, but at the very least I was relieved that the head of this group that inspired evil all around the world had been removed. As a resident of the U.S for most of the past 12 years, and living in Boston (from where one of the plane’s that brought down the Twin Towers departed), I certainly felt a strong sense of relief that this mass murderer was no longer a threat to many of my friends and family. Perhaps I would have felt more of an urge to celebrate if I was American and felt his target explicitly on my back for the last 10 years. In that sense, I completely understand that the vanquishing of one’s enemy can produce a strong, heartfelt joy that would pour out in celebration. Such displays are perfectly understandable, natural, and often, instinctive.
But not all of our strong, heartfelt, natural and instinctive passions are noble, laudable, moral or civilized. We have evolved a moral sense and moved more and more away from indulging every fleeting passion and towards civilization, but our passions remain instinctive. And while through our laws and religions we try to strengthen and reinforce our moral senses, we still have these deep rooted instincts and passions that predate such civil dialogue. As such I find myself in strong agreement with many of comments questioning the celebration of a killing, even of one as evil as Osama. It may be natural and understandable that we feel good that an enemy is destroyed, but that does not make it right, laudable or proper.
In her piece entitled “Is it proper to celebrate Osama Bin Laden’s death?”, an article on aish.com, Mrs. Lori Palatnik shared her views on this debate. She compared the scenes of joy at yesterday’s news to rejoicing of the Israelites as they watched their foe, the Egyptians, dying in the Red Sea:
“Indeed, when the sea miraculously split, the seabed turned dry and the Jewish people walked safely to the other side. They then turned to watch the death of their enemy, as the now muddy seabed caught the Egyptian horses and chariot wheels.
The Jewish people broke into song, called “The Song of the Sea.” Miriam, with musical instruments, took the Jewish women aside and danced and sang in praise of God. And we are told that in heaven, the angels also broke into song. But the Almighty chastised the angels and said, “How can you sing when my people are dying?”
Several questions arise. Why would God tell the angels not to celebrate and yet allow the Jews to sing? And God’s people were dying because He himself killed them!
What God is saying to the angels is that this is not a happy day for Him. He did not create the Egyptians for evil, but they chose evil, and now evil had to be wiped out. But the Jewish people had suffered at the hand of the Egyptians and they not only had the right to celebrate, they must celebrate. [no emphasis added]“
I disagree with the last part, that they must celebrate. It is natural to celebrate, just as it’s natural to lust, and it’s natural to feel wrath and anger. We may feel we have a right to celebrate, and indeed, no sane person ought to deny a people the right to express their relief and joy that an enemy who sought their blood is no longer a threat. But this doesn’t make it morally proper or laudable.
Indeed, another interpretation of that passage, would be that while he could understand the flawed and lesser human beings giving in to their passions and basely celebrating in the face of death and destruction, the angels in heaven were held to a higher standard. And it was on the basis of this higher standard that God rebuked them.
Unlike the affairs of heaven, human politics is very far removed from morality and such higher concerns. Our governments must address very pragmatic issues of national security and the interests of their nations and citizens with firmness and a resolute commitment to action. As such principles like “love thy neighbour” and “turning the other cheek” can not rationally, be expected to apply to nations. Nations are not individuals, do not possess souls or empathy, and are guided by pure unbridled self-interest (with occasional acts of charity and goodwill sprinkled in when convenient, either to build goodwill or to encourage their citizen’s nobler values – both of which are in the direct self-interest of all nations). As such, we can not expect a nation to “turn the other cheek” when attacked. The U.S had a right to seek retribution and vengeance and to hunt out Osama and kill him for the death and destruction that he caused on 9/11. And not merely for the sake of removing the threat that Osama himself posed to America. Indeed, sending a clear message that “the United States of America will not stand idly by the blood of her citizens. We are patient and have long memories. No man can take the lives of innocents with impunity“, to all would be terrorists was of utmost importance. But we ought not discount the basic need, articulated by many of us and our leaders, for the nation to seek retribution for the acts of 9/11. As individuals, we should naturally feel relieved at Osama’s death. And our base instincts may produce some pleasure at his death – this is no less understandable than the feelings of lust that might stir in us while watching late night television or what have you. But if we seek to rise above our base passions and pursue a higher moral standard for ourselves as civilized, moral individuals, then we should seek to curb and overcome such base passions.
One of the greatest sources of Evil is the dehumanization of our enemies. We forget at times the saying that “There we go but for the grace of God”. When we rejoice at the death of a serial killer, we do so from the the perspective of potential victims looking at our predators. We see them as evil creatures, and not as the mentally unstable victims of child abuse that they often are, with their abuse often derailing their ability to tell right from wrong, restrain their passions or develop empathy – the root of all moral thought. (Their threat is not, and should not be reduced by the realization that the source of their psychopathic tendencies is often their own victim-hood.) Similarly, when we rejoice when our governments declare and our newspapers print “WAR!!” in bold letters, we embrace the natural desire for the destruction of our enemies. We see them not as fellow men (and women and children), but as a dehumanized threat to our existence. This is the beginning of the loss of empathy that leads us to treat them as animals, to torture our captives and to degrade them, forgetting that while doing so we ourselves become less human.
So yes – it is undoubtedly good news that Osama Bin Laden has been captured and killed. But IF we seek to hold ourselves to higher standards of morality and civilization than our base passions instinctively produce, our response ought to be one of remembrance and mourning. Not for his death, but for the massacre that occurred on 9/11, for the victims and many others who have died since, as this deluded murderer by his actions on and leading up to that fateful day, plunged the world into a war that continues to take the lives of Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with many other innocent civilians of other nationalities all around the world.