Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Celebrating the Death of a Terrorist

The announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death around 10:30 pm on May 1st, 2011 came as a surprise, and some details of the operation were similarly surprising, not the least of which is the fact that he was hiding in plain sight, right in the midst of a Pakistani military town near the capital. His death certainly won’t mean the immediate end of efforts against terrorism, and it may even lead to an initial increase in attempted attacks.

But the details of the operation aren’t really what I want to talk about right now. I want to talk about our reactions to his death. Though I’m certainly not alone in discussing this.

Is it right to celebrate?

News of the successful operation lead to jubilant displays of celebration, particularly in New York City and Washington, D.C., but people all over reacted in their own little ways. However, some people have a problem with this. Several comment threads are replete with people saying things like:

“When the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea, the Israelites sang out in celebration that their oppressors were dead. And God scolded them, ‘Why are you celebrating? I have just killed a multitude of my children.’” – Somewhere in Exodus in the Bible, I presume
"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” – Misattributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. (and completely made up?)

and of course these sorts of gems:

I remember 9/11 and watching the news later and the next day, of watching the mid-east (in some parts) burning our flag and celebrating the tragedy that happened. I watched and others watched and we felt sick to our stomaches[sic].

And I won’t even get into the conspiracy theories.

The upshot of all of this is that there are some people who are disgusted by the spontaneous celebrations, who think it was not our finest moment, or that this makes us as bad as the terrorists and their supporters. On the one hand, we had some people in the Middle East cheering for the attacks on 9/11 which resulted in the deaths of over 3,000 people. On the other, we have Americans cheering for the death of the individual responsible for those deaths. [sarcasm]Hmm, yeah, they do seem to be exactly the same thing, don’t they?[/sarcasm]

One of the concerns of this set of people (not quoted) is that it looks bad to others. But it isn’t every American’s job to handle diplomacy, and it’s only human nature to display joy if you’re feeling joy.

More to celebrate than just his death

But to say that Americans were only celebrating his death is oversimplifying things. If the news had just been “Intelligence indicates that Osama Bin Laden died,” we’d probably have people happy about it, but I’m doubtful that we would have seen such jubilance. I think people are celebrating because an extremely successful American military operation finally found him and brought him—this organizer of the 9/11 attacks (among several others) and symbol of the enemy—down one way or another, and with minimal civilian casualties to boot, along with getting a treasure trove of inside information on Al Qaeda. There’s much to celebrate about what was achieved in this mission, regardless of whether Osama was killed or was captured.

Not to mention that this has come when our collective mood was pretty low, coming out (barely) from a deep recession and in the middle of an extremely divisive political landscape. People needed something to celebrate.

My thoughts

Now, I personally struggled just a little bit with this: should I have preferred his capture and trial, demonstrating the robustness of our justice system and that we are better than them? Or is his death the best outcome? After all, I’ve generally considered myself to be against the death penalty. I’ve given this some thought, and I would say this: I am glad that he is no longer a threat and that we can close this chapter of our history. I may have preferred his capture if it was at all possible, but his death is just fine by me.


High-minded intellectual thought and basic human emotional expression both have their places, and they don’t need to be mutually exclusive. As long as we don’t allow our celebrations to devolve into bloodlust, as some deplorable individuals have, we’re going to be okay. Perhaps a quote by Clarence Darrow (which is being widely paraphrased and misattributed to Mark Twain) would capture the sentiment nicely:

I have never killed a man, but I have read many an obituary with a great deal of satisfaction.  – Clarence Darrow
I have never wished a man dead, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.
 – Not Mark Twain

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