When news came through Sunday night that Osama bin Laden had been killed, everyone in my house rushed to the TV. We turned it on just in time to catch Obama’s address and then to see coverage of celebrations around the country. I was a bit shocked to see what looked like college kids outside of the White House jubilantly cheering (Literally! There were cheerleaders being thrown up in stunts!), singing, and chanting, “USA! USA!”
I rushed to post the following tweet and facebook status immediately:
“No matter how heinous the person, I don’t believe killing someone is ever cause for celebration. Tonight is a time for somber reflection.” My primary intention was not to criticize the actions of others; rather it was to share my values, especially with my international friends/colleagues/followers.
In this medium I have more than 140 characters so let me elaborate on my position. The killing of Osama bin Laden surely represents a very significant event. In real terms, hopefully it will lead to “less terror.” In symbolic terms, it is valuable to many people because he had been built up for so long as the symbol/personification of terrorism.
No matter how monstrous, Osama bin Laden was still a human being, though, and we (“we” being our citizen soldiers financed by our tax dollars and operating under orders of leaders we empowered through our democratic process, so we are all complicit in it) took his life. We place value on human life and, even if our enemies don’t, it is by sticking to our values that we remain who we are. Without our values, we have no moral ground on which to stand.
I fully recognize that violence and killing are sometimes necessary “for the greater good” (The Grindelwold reference is intentional because determination of “the greater good” is often a very subjective affair.) but it should always be the course of last resort. I believe (perhaps naively so) that it is usually our country’s course of last resort. When the decision must be made to resort to violence or killing, it is a weighty decision that should be made “reluctantly and without joy.” (not my words)
So when we have succeeded in killing someone, be it Osama bin Laden or Hitler or the Wicked Witch of the West, even someone we consider to be pure evil, my heart is not filled with joy; rather it is sorrowful that this most severe step had to be taken. Instead of jumping for joy at the news of bin Laden’s death, I took some time to reflect on why the death was necessary and what could be done to avoid similar circumstances requiring similar action in the future. I reflected on what the consequences of the killing might be, both here and abroad. I reflected on the brave men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to effect this outcome – and I especially reflected on those who didn’t return home. I reflected on the innocent human beings who lost their lives (on both sides of the “War on Terror”). This was my way of reacting to the news.
With such a significant event come signifant and significantly varied emotional reactions. This is fine and normal and I don’t fault anyone for how he/she feels about it. However, how we feel and act are different. This is why we have penalties for bad sportsmanship (e.g. excessive celebration in football). This is why in media we tend to sympathize with the humble, gracious winner (e.g. the Karate Kid) rather than the taunting, celebratory one (e.g. his Cobra Kai opponent).
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it much better than I can:
”I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Practically speaking, much of the international community already sees the US as a global bully that pushes other countries around and assassinates unilaterally at will. I suspect that images of Americans jumping up and down in celebration of the killing (metaphorically “dancing on the grave” of a fallen enemy) will further this image and maybe add bloodlust to our charicature as well.
For my part I try to represent the US differently, but perhaps the learning here is that this other representation is in many ways accurate – that the jubilant celebrators are simply being authentic and that it doesn’t take WikiLeaks to reveal that truth. Regardless, I take comfort in the fact that each of us has the right to celebrate in whichever way he/she sees fit and that brave and competent men and women are working every day to protect that right.