Wednesday, May 04, 2011

On the morality of celebrating bin Laden's death

Last Sunday evening, the President announced to the world that the armed forces of the United States of America had raided a compound in Pakistan and had killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization that had been responsible for, among many other atrocities, the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Even as the President spoke, jubilant crowds gathered at the White House, in Times Square, at the World Trade Center site and at other locations to celebrate the news: Osama bin Laden was finally dead.

As I watched these celebrations on television, my first thought was for the safety of those in the crowds. What if a sleeper terrorist or "lone-wolf" sympathizer, distraught and angered about bin Laden's death, decided to wade into those exultant gatherings with a backpack bomb or a suicide vest or an automatic weapon?

My second thought was to wonder why people were celebrating, when the war against extremist terrorism is so very clearly not over? We may have killed the head, but the body - a body that still intends to do us harm - remains. Indeed, in the coming days we may very well see attempts at reprisals by extremists devoted to bin Laden and his cause.

My final thought was one regarding the morality of these spontaneous demonstrations. Is it really right to be celebrating the death of another human being? Is it appropriate to triumphantly strut around, wave flags, chant "USA" and pound fists to chests because we ended somebody else's life, even a life as repugnant and as evil as bin Laden's? I perceived something gauche and tactless about these celebrations.

What does it say about us as Americans, after all? Are the people participating in these crowds any better than the people who in the days following 9/11, in places like Palestine and Pakistan, celebrated the attacks and burned American flags? Footage of those celebrations angered me almost as much as the attacks themselves. Yet here we were, doing the same thing. What kind of message does that send to the world? How will that motivate jihadists who continue to believe in bin Laden's murderous campaign even though he himself is now gone?

Stephen Prothero, a scholar of religion at Boston University, says that these celebrations made him cringe. "I just don’t feel comfortable celebrating anyone’s death," he writes. Indeed, in the days that have followed there has been much discussion as to whether these celebrations were morally justified or ethically appropriate.

In the day or two after the celebrations occurred, however, several of my friends on Facebook posted a quote, misattributed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that suggested that it was wrong to rejoice in any person's death, implying that these demonstrations manifested nothing more than a base, hateful, eye-for-an-eye mentality.

While I appreciate the sentiment, I also found something self-righteous and condescending about it. No offense to the many folks on my Facebook feed who posted the quote - they are my friends and I care about and respect them deeply - but did since when did they become the arbiters of what is moral or proper in such a raw and emotional time such as this? This mindset, in my mind, became just as cringe-worthy as the celebratory demonstrations itself. As my friend Greg wrote in response to one of these ubiquitous Facebook posts:
My problem with the altered MLK quote that I've had plastered across all my social media these last 24 hours is that the implication seems to be that it's politically incorrect, distasteful, ignorant or unenlightened for people to feel relief or joy in the killing of a very violent man. It's turning into a litmus test of whether or not you're a good liberal or religiously correct.
I feel the same way.
The people who gathered Sunday evening to celebrate bin Laden's death are, like the rest of us, human. And just as anger is a natural human emotion, so is the desire for revenge and the need to experience catharsis. However classless and distasteful that Sunday night's celebrations might have been, they were nevertheless were an expression of catharsis, of relief.

A heroic group of US Navy SEALS had, after all, finally eliminated a person
who was the leader of an organization that had, either by itself or through affiliated sympathizers, murdered not only numerous American servicemen, police officers and firefighters on 9/11, but also countless civilians not only here in the United States but also in London, Madrid, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Turkey, The Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Kenya, Tanzania and many other places. Are people not collectively allowed to feel a sense of justice, a sense of satisfaction, that this guy is no longer around?

We can argue if these celebrations were right or appropriate or tasteful. We can be reflective about what it says about us as a people when we take pleasure in another person's demise, even the demise as somebody as grotesque and as sinister as Osama bin Laden. But regardless of how you feel about the appropriateness of Sunday night's revelry - I myself am ambivalent - and even though the terrorist network that he led will outlive him, I at least would hope that everyone can feel sense of relief - a sense of peace - that this man himself will no longer be able to harm any more innocent people.

Other aspects about this episode I am decidedly less ambivalent about:
  • Although it would have been ideal to capture, rather than kill, bin Laden and bring him to justice, had that occurred the resulting debate - how and where to detain him, how and where to try him - would have created a political circus of the worst kind that would be the last thing this nation needs right now. They killed him and got it over with. I'm fine with that.

  • The decision to bury him at sea was appropriate. Had bin Laden been buried on land, his grave would have quickly become a shrine that would have attracted and inspired jihadists. Furthermore, the fact that his body was afforded an Islamic ceremony prior to his burial showed the world that the United States government and its military has compassion even for its greatest enemies; that we are a greater and more magnanimous people than our enemies.

  • The decision not to release photos of his body at this time is also appropriate. While people will always be wanting proof of his death, releasing these gruesome photos right now would have been inflammatory to much of the world. There is no need to glorify his death by disseminating photos of his body to the world.

  • Finally, I want to say that as an American I am proud of our armed forces, of our intelligence services, and of both the Bush and Obama administrations of never wavering in the desire to get Osama bin Laden. It took almost ten years after 9/11 to do it, but we finally found and eliminated him. Whatever problems the United States might currently face, our resolve and our determination as a nation is not to be questioned. Let that be a lesson to those who intend to do our nation harm in the future. Perhaps it's not appropriate, and perhaps I'm no better than the folks who celebrated bin Laden's death last Sunday night, but sorry, I can't help myself. Courtesy of Trey Parker and Matt Stone:

1 comment:

Unkle Monkee said...

I'm way behind on my reading but I just got around to this blog post and I agree with your sentiments.

I had a discussion with a friend on whether or not Osama bin Laden was an extrajudicial execution or assassination. I said neither. He was a battlefield casualty. Mind you this were only discussion points not a stand he was taking. He quoted an NPR report that said what of the Nazi war criminals they were brought to trial.

I counter that they were brought to trial because the shooting war was over. Bin Laden declared war on the USA basically at any place any time. Kill military and civilians were his standing orders. Therefore he was a legit target in any USA operation. I have no doubts that President Obama's orders were shoot to kill.

Fishing Coog