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In Search of Our Better Selves

by Jo Page on May 4, 2011 · 1 comment

During NPR’s special coverage of the Bin Laden killing, a reporter spoke to the father of one of the 9/11 victims. The reporter wanted to know if he was pleased that Bin Laden had been killed.

The father responded that he was relieved, but that he also feared reprisals from Al-Qaida. And he pointed out that he could take no personal pleasure in the killing since it would not bring his son back. Nor, he added, did he think it right to derive joy from any man’s death.

It was, I felt, an important response because it highlighted three critical aspects of the situation: that lives lost are truly lost and cannot be reconstituted by retribution—his son will not return because Bin Laden is dead. Reprisal and revenge often seem inevitable, but only perpetuate a cycle of violence. And to take pleasure in anyone’s death reveals a dehumanizing contempt for life.

Amidst all the talk, speculation, warnings and analyses, there appears to be one constant: relief that Osama Bin Laden has been killed. Relief is understandable. But the impromptu partying that broke out near ground zero and in Washington is sobering. Just as we were horrified by images of celebrating Muslims after the 9/11 attacks, there is something grisly about breaking out the Budweiser and singing victory songs.

The Roman Catholic Church issued a compelling statement in the face of Bin Laden’s killing: “Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of everyone before God and man, and hopes and pledges that every event is not an opportunity for a further growth of hatred, but of peace.”

One wishes the statement had gone a little further: “Faced with the death of a man, any person with a fully-developed sense of humanity, never rejoices. . . .” Christianity doesn’t hold the patent on reflective self-awareness, and we are our better selves when we acknowledge the distinction between enacting justice and celebrating violence.

Mike Hayes, a campus pastor at the University at Buffalo, observed, “I don’t think that the celebrations in the streets were our finest moment as Americans, and reminded me much of the anger I felt at seeing Afghans dancing in the streets at the fall of the towers on that dreaded day.”

Nor will such images of celebratory flash-mobs in any way enhance national security; if anything, they will threaten it.

“Most people believe that the killing we do in war is justified as the only way to disable an enemy whose cause we believe to be unjust,” says Christine Korsgaard, a philosophy professor at Harvard University. “And although it is more controversial, many people believe, or at least feel, that those who kill deserve to die as retribution for their crimes.

“But if we confuse the desire to defeat an enemy with the desire for retribution against a criminal, we risk forming attitudes that are unjustified and ugly—the attitude that our enemy’s death is not merely a means to disabling him, but is in itself a kind of a victory for us. . . . If we have any feeling of victory or triumph in the case, it should be because we have succeeded in disabling him—not because he is dead.”

One explanation given for the singing, partying and sloganeering that has gone on among younger people is that Bin Laden functioned as a symbol of evil for a generation too young to understand fully what happened on 9/11 (as if any of us really did). One reveler described Bin Laden as the Lord Voldemort of his generation, as if we lived in a dualistic world inhabited by absolutes embodied by particular people. The corollary (and scary) question is does this make George Bush or President Obama Dumbledore?

You see how limited such thinking is.

Evil remains very much with us. Celebrating the death of the symbol of evil diminishes us as human beings. And sadly, but falsely, it also seeks to diminish the evil against which we must be committed to stand.

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