Is it wrong to celebrate the death of an enemy?
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.—Martin Luther King, Jr
Yet the world is an undeniably better place without Osama bin Laden in it. There is evil in the world, and at times the good must rise up and extinguish it. Surely, two world wars can have most of us agree on as much. Unless we’re willing to live with enslavement and tyranny, I see no other solution than force of arms for keeping dictators, madmen, and terrorists at bay. It is the sad nature of humankind that evil exists.
I think it folly to suppose that Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s efforts through nonviolence and civil disobedience, as successful as they were in India and the American South respectively, could avert war between nations, stop international terrorism, or bring outlaws to justice. Indeed, without British shame and Kennedy’s National Guard one wonders how successful the aforementioned nonviolent movements would have been.
Nonetheless, nonviolence does not compromise one’s soul in the ways that violence does, and that is an enormous strength and value that should not be underestimated. Within a civil society, nonviolence protest can be the most effective and least diminishing course of action. It takes a willingness on the part of the oppressor to accept change, but it can be highly effective. (Case in point, the recent nonviolent revolution in Egypt.) That would be similarly true on the larger geopolitical stage, except that I don’t believe that it generally works. (At least I can think of no ready example.)
But none of this makes the good Reverend wrong. Hate begets hate, and darkness easily consumes the soul. Nations must fight wars with great reluctance not only because of the physical destruction that takes place, but because in war we dent our humanity, and after the experience our souls are never quite the same. The soldiers returning from the front lines are only the most obvious casualties. No one can convince me that our national psyche is better now than it was on September 10, 2001.
People are in the streets celebrating the death of bin Laden today, which strikes me by turns as macabre and idiotic. Celebrating death might be fine at an Irish wake, but it’s another thing entirely to be jubilant at the murder of another human being, no matter how heinous. Grim satisfaction seems a more appropriate response than jingoist pride—especially when in so many ways we’ve lost the undefinable “war on terror.”
Having spent trillions of dollars, instituted Big Brother-like surveillance both internationally and domestically, and dramatically curtailed civil liberties, how can we claim to have won? How will we ever? We’re on a path to literally bankrupt our country, and we’re less free (individually and collectively) than we’ve been at any time in living memory. Of this, what changes with the death of the world’s leading terrorist?
On this final question, I can only be happy if bin Laden’s death serves as the beginning of the end of US overseas military entanglements, and then not so much at his death as the possibility that we may begin to remake ourselves into a peaceful, solvent, freedom-loving nation. If his demise marks a necessary first step in a return to our better selves, so be it. What I celebrate is not his death, but the prospect of personal and national peace and the hope that such a thing is still possible.