Every time I’ve gotten on Facebook over the past few days I’ve read people’s reactions to the death of Osama Bin Laden. Most of these statements regarding OBL’s death haven’t been about the man himself, the life he lived, or the way he died; they’ve mostly been reactions to others’ celebration of his death. Most of these reactions have been negative; they object to the celebration of the death of a fellow human being, no matter how vile he may have been. Here’s an especially good one I read just before writing this:
“I am sure [Osama Bin Laden] celebrated all of the deaths of his enemies… I thought that was why he was the bad guy, though?”
I feel the sentiment too. There’s something in me that writhes about when I see others, or myself, smiling or laughing or cheering about the fact that there’s one more bullet-riddled, lifeless body in the world.
But I think the sentiment that being glad at, or even celebrating, the death of another human being is wrong – isn’t always right. I think that the feeling that it’s always wrong to be glad someone has died or been killed is based on the beautiful, but false, belief that no one lives in such a way that their death is a victory for good. People do live this way, and Osama Bin Laden was one of them. I don’t think that you should ignore that part of yourself that cringes when you see someone smiling over his death, but I do think you should consider exactly what you should be cringing over. I don’t think that you should cringe over his death, per se. I think you should feel saddened and grieved not that a man was killed, but rather that a man – a fellow human – lived in such a way that he put his other fellow humans in such a painful predicament, where they were forced to either willfully live with the danger that, at any moment, innocence and beauty could be snuffed out by this man, or willfully eliminate the threat to innocents by taking another’s life. In this way, by living the life he did, Osama Bin Laden victimized humanity on multiple levels. He played an active, conscious role in taking the lives of thousands of people – thousands of boyfriends and girlfriends, children, fiancees, parents, siblings and friends. He helped traumatize thousands of other lives forever. And he promised to do this as long as he lived. He thereby placed the world of innocents between the horns of a dilemma: live in fear and danger, or eliminate a life. And in this instance, the second option is the moral one. Weighing the value of the lives of thousands of innocents against the value of a moral monster who threatens those lives makes the right choice clear. To not do everything possible to preserve the lives of innocents in this case would have been wrong. Bin Laden forced other humans into the position where, in order to do the right thing, they had to kill someone. That’s not their fault. It’s his.
But why should we be happy he’s dead? Sure, killing him wasn’t the wrong thing to do, you might say, but is celebrating another’s death, no matter how evil they are, ever right? Isn’t celebrating the death of another human sadistic and cruel? I think it is, normally. But I don’t think it’s always sadistic, cruel, or mean-spirited to celebrate another’s death. Consider the following scenarios.
The Roman Emperor, Nero, was a sadistic tyrant. Stories illustrating his cruelty abound. He, according to some accounts, used to light the city of Rome at night by hanging Christians, alive, by their limbs throughout the city and setting them on fire. Perhaps those stories are true, perhaps not. It doesn’t really matter. There certainly could have been such a ruler. And there certainly have been sick, terrifying tyrants. Perhaps Nero did light the city with live, screaming humans. Perhaps he taxed people so severely that many starved to death while he sat on a mountain of money. And perhaps he skinned alive all who dared to look in his face. Imagine this is how Nero was. All his subjects would live in constant fear of his next whimsical bout of sadism. They would struggle under the financial burdens he placed on them. Many would watch their children starve to death under his unjust rule.
Now imagine, having ruled in this way, Nero suddenly dies, and his throne passes to another – a just and kind man. He was stabbed to death by a guard; or perhaps he died of a sudden stroke, or bone cancer, and with his death so dies his tyrannical rule. How would you, a pitiful, starving subject of his, living in constant fear of torture or taxation, feel? You’d rejoice! The tyrant is dead! You’d take the money you have, knowing it will no longer go to the Monster King, and prepare a feast for your family! And would you be evil for it? For laughing and dancing and crying for joy with your husband or wife? Of course not! This man’s death is not a tragedy; it’s a blessing to the world, for it has made us safer; it has removed from our lives injustice, terror, pain, death, and hatred. That is a cause for celebration. If we mourn at all it should come last, and we should not mourn over the man’s death, but over his life. We should be sorry not that he died, but that he lived in the way he did.
This is how we should feel about Osama Bin Laden’s death. We didn’t all live in the same terror that those under my (probably fictitious) Nero did. But many of our fellow humans did. Many have lived for ten years with the suffering and loss he helped inflict on them, and a hatred for the man who chose to hurt them so badly. His death has given some sense of closure and real justice to their pain. There are people today who, had Bin Laden been allowed to live out his natural life, would have surely died at his hands. They don’t know who they are, but there are such people. And we should be glad that they won’t die in this unjust way now. We should, also, be glad for all the people who have lived with a constant, phobic anxiety at the fact that Bin Laden is out there, trying to find some way to drop another plane on their city. They can rest a bit easier, I think, knowing that that monster isn’t out there now.
So, I think that celebration is absolutely appropriate, if it is done with the right facts in mind. We should be happy that the world is a bit safer, that there’s one less monster out there, and that there are likely lives that would have ended unjustly, but have now been saved. That is worth celebrating. But most who celebrate don’t do so with these facts in mind. They celebrate the death of Bin Laden as a victory for the ‘home team’. It’s ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and we just scored a touchdown. This sort of stupid, machismo, fanboy exuberance is shameful and totally out of place. It embodies, albiet to a much smaller degree, the very same divisive, inhumane prejudices that make real atrocities, such as terrorism, possible in the first place. It ought to be snuffed out too. But, that said, I think that you, the reader, should feel entitled to a real sense of satisfaction at the fact that, in the death of a monster, the world has been bettered.