Most people are aware by now, that Osama Bin Laden has been killed by American forces. Like many, I watched the announcement live and shared surprise, jubilation, and jibes with friends on Facebook. There were, at various places in the US, spontaneous gatherings during which people shouted “USA!” and sang the national anthem. It was a powerful night of catharsis that many people are now criticizing.
The argument against celebration is, in short, that it is unseemly to celebrate anyone’s death, whether enemy or not. The loss of a person’s life is a tragedy, the argument asserts, and such a killing should be handled with solemnity and thoughtfulness. I get this and it is a criticism that stings for two reasons. First, it is often made by people for whom I have the deepest respect, and second, I made a similar point ten years ago, in one of my favorite pieces of writing, during a sermon I delivered for the Jewish high holidays. Just six days after the attacks on the world trade centers, I wrote:
“There is an image, within our cultural consciousness, of the prison that executes the condemned using the electric chair. As the warden pulls the switch, the lights outside the prison dim. Outside, inevitably, are the few, the self-righteous, the indignant. As the light dims they cheer. This death, this tragedy, induced and endorsed by the state, becomes, for them, a moment of celebration…. [but] Jews have no business standing outside the prison, watching the dimming lights, and cheering.”
(Remember, I’m reading this to a synagogue on one of the two holiest days of the year, so the mention of “Jews” is not anachronistic or tribalism. I thought that the message applied to everyone, Jewish or not. I was just talking to Jews about Jewish morality.)
Given that I too celebrated Bin Laden’s death on Sunday night, I must ask whether I have changed my mind or whether I was simply swept away by the moment. I’ve been thinking about this non-stop for the last two days, I even wrote a long note about it on facebook, and although my comments were well-received by most, a few people leveled the same criticism against it: I was wrong to defend the celebration. (I’m not linking to the note, by the way, because it reveals too much of my personal politics and such comments have no place on a non-partisan blog like this.) In the end, however, I have come to the conclusion that I have neither changed my mind nor acted incorrectly. I think that ten years ago, I was writing about a different case.
There is, I believe, a difference between executing a prisoner who is trapped in a cell and who poses no danger, and an enemy combatant with whom we are at war. The prisoner is in our care, at our mercy, and because of this we have a specific trust to fulfill. If the death penalty is ever necessary (and it is far from certain that it is), it is something that is deliberate, theatrical, and the executed person has no opportunity to defend him or herself. A war, however, is more spontaneous and riskier. Original reports suggested that Bin Laden was armed during the battle. Now there is some suggestion that he was not. I’m not sure if it makes a difference because the American soldiers were in a firefight and it sounds like it was impossible to know what Bin Laden could and couldn’t do to defend himself. But, if Bin Laden had lain down, put his hands behind his head, passively surrendered, and the soldiers knew for certain that they were safe from bombs or ambush, then the attack would have become an execution and different rules might have applied. It sounds like this wasn’t the case and I think they were justified in killing him.
This still doesn’t answer the question, though. Whether Bin Laden should have been killed is different than whether anyone should celebrate the fact that he was, and the latter point is the occasion for this post. Those who condemn us for celebrating Bin Laden’s death do so because of the sanctity of life. Human existence is special (perhaps all existence is), and when it is taken away, people claim, its loss must be mourned. However, it is at this very point where I start to have trouble with the argument. It seems odd to me that we celebrate the sanctity of life at the moment of death and not during the life itself. We hate paying taxes to help educate, or to help promote health care, or to assist people in need across the globe. We waste our time watching Jersey Shore instead of great works of art and other significant human achievements, we treat our bodies horribly, eating bad food with cancerous chemicals and while avoiding exercise (I was about to go the gym when I sat down to write this). We neglect our families and become overly focused on work. We are rude, selfish, hostile, and suspicious. Americans in particular tend to spend a lot of time arguing for life’s sanctity at the moment of conception (if they are anti-abortion) and at the moment of death (if they are anti death penalty) but they don’t spend a lot of time focusing on it during the periods in between. Maybe this is because those two moments are the main instances where a person’s life is solely controlled by someone else, or maybe it is when we are most aware of its preciousness. But being made aware that life is precious is not the same as life actually being more precious, and it seems to me that the people who are focusing on the moment of death are blaming the soldiers (and the celebrants) for a crime committed long before the raid on Pakistan ever began.
To put it another way: I mourn Bin Laden’s life rather than his death. I mourn the fact that he chose to waste what God or nature gave him by killing others, by living in hiding, by blowing untold millions of dollars on guns, bombs, and uniforms, instead of spending it on education, medicine, culture, and charity.
Bin Laden took a fringe interpretation of Islam and used it to eat away at the moral core of a religion that is responsible for some of the world’s most important philosophy, art, theology, and inspiration. This crime must be mourned too. There are billions of Muslims in the world who are kind, righteous, loving people, and whom I would be proud to call neighbor and friend. But Bin Laden betrayed them too with his war mongering and his selfishness. I know he thought he was correct in his theological views, but evidence shows otherwise, and virtually every Islamic scholar in the world agrees. In other words, his life was the tragedy, not his death.
In response, though, my critics will reassert that life is sacred and therefore a good in itself. How he lived his life then, is irrelevant to the value we should place on his very existence. When we have to kill someone, they might continue, we should be humble because death is the one thing that destroys all possibilities. It is a display of power, of cessation, of the animalistic side of humanity that we must conquer. Nothing follows from death, but anything can happen from a life.
Again, I get this. I’m not convinced that I agree, but I get it, and even if I disagree, I think I should be ever conscious of the perspective because doing so will make me a better person. So, with that in mind, here is my ultimate response: sometimes we celebrate because we don’t have the tools to do better. Sometimes we make jokes because it’s the best vocabulary we have for catharsis. Sometimes we act a certain way because we are, at that moment, incapable of acting differently. Would it have been better if the spontaneous crowds shouted, “we are relieved!” instead of “USA!”? Perhaps. Should the Facebook posts have read “now I have a little less anxiety,” instead of “yay! We got the bastard””? Maybe. Should all of us engage in a collective, soul-searching, mapping of the complex emotional landscape that living in a dangerous world and fighting three wars (four if you count the war against terror) requires of us? Yes. We should. And doing so is part of the motivation of this post. But in times of great relief, in moments of catharsis, in instances of collective identification, we ought to have permission to be imperfect creatures who emphasize the most immediate emotion and the most powerful expressions. Jon Stewart accurately called his celebration of Bin Laden’s death a show of “pure id.” I couldn’t have said it better. And it makes me realize that the true answer to the question “should we celebrate an enemy’s death?” is not either “yes” or “no” but rather “first yes then no.” Given all that we have been through and all that Bin Laden has meant for everyone in the world, we ought to be entitled to a period of celebration and catharsis, but then we also need to get over it.
It seems to me that the real question is not whether we were wrong to celebrate Bin Laden’s death on Sunday night but once the threat has passed, once our heartbeats calm down, and once we move on with our lives, whether we should continue to celebrate his death or take the occasion to reflect on human life, foreign policy, religious tolerance, and how we treat the men and women who exist in the world with us right now. If we do this, then we are recognizing the sanctity of life while people are living it and not at the moment they die when it is too late to make a difference to them. But if we need to feel joy before we get there and to act out a bit before we can center ourselves and reflect on our circumstances, then I’m okay with that. After significant reflection, I do not think we were cheering at the dimming lights outside the prison at all. Instead, I think we were all celebrating our own existence instead of focusing on the enemy’s death and we ought to be permitted to do that as well. If all life is sacred, our lives our sacred too. We are entitled to attend to that joy as well.