Last night I watched the news until far later than I intended, watching the talking heads talk about the big news – the end of Osama bin Laden. As the evening wore on I watched as the crowds gathered at the White House, in New York, around the country and I watched people’s reactions as they posted on Facebook and Twitter. Like many millions of people around the world I felt a sense of relief that this man who willingly perpetrated murder, who instructed chaos and terror, who was so supremely filled with hate – I felt relief at the end of his ability to act in the world. And I felt a certain relief that the American military machine, which operates at the cost of billions of dollars that could well be spent elsewhere, does work and can move stealthily and carefully. A little part of me, the eternal optimist – we can say the unrealistic idealist – hoped that this might be the first far-off ringing of the end-of-war bell. What I did not do and will not do – not then, not now, not ever – is celebrate the killing of this human being.
The death of Osama bin Laden changes everything and it changes nothing. It doesn’t change the fact that the United States is embroiled in two deadly wars; that terrorists all over the world want to kill us; that our country is suffering from high unemployment, a weak economy, a gutted housing market, millions of homeless, hungry, and uninsured citizens. What it changes is the feelings of millions of people the world over who have been waiting for justice to be done for the thousands of murders committed at the behest of Osama bin Laden. He planned, organized, and called for murder and terror attacks not just in the US but in Africa, Saudi Arabia, and around the world. The waiting for his capture is over. His very public face as king of hatred is gone.
We can celebrate the end of an era, the end of waiting for his capture. We can celebrate with some national pride at a successful military mission and for a president and soldiers with a brave hearts. But we should not celebrate his death. Today, in the aftermath of last night’s giddy joy so many people were expressing, many more were expressing horror at the celebration of death. Do we not remember the anger and pain we felt as we watched citizens in Gaza cheering and throwing candy and celebrating when they heard news of the attacks of 9/11? We are better than that. Respect for all human life is one of the things that sets us apart from them. And when I say ‘us’ and ‘them’ I don’t mean ‘Americans’ and ‘everyone else’. Nor do I mean ‘non-Muslims’ and ‘Muslims’ or ‘the rest of us’ and ‘Arabs’. When I say ‘us’ I mean ‘we who try to change the world through acts of righteousness, be they large or small’. And when I say ‘them’ I mean ‘they who try to change the world through acts of terror, cruelty, and hatred’. Not celebrating death is one thing that separates us from them. Even if there is rejoicing in our hearts we do not celebrate the killing of this man.
I think I express the feelings of many Americans when I say I would have rather seen him captured alive than killed in a blaze of bullets. We are enjoined to pursue justice and although his killing may have been the only option and may have been the right thing, it wasn’t justice. And we should not celebrate his death.