Brought us the head of Osama Bin Laden

Though I felt the need to correct Scott’s quote – he fell victim to a widespread quotation mangling – I don’t want to trivialize his perspective.  As I’ve noted, I sympathize with it.  I just feel it’s incomplete.  When some “celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden,” what they’re reacting to is more complex than the death of a hated enemy.  I don’t expect to provide a definitive answer or even a smackdown this morning, just some stray thoughts while the Prez visits GZ to meet FDNY and lay a wreath.

Jeffrey Goldberg consults his “Torah teacher” Erica Brown on the general question from a Jewish moral perspective – at “Is it Right to Celebrate the Death of Someone Who Commits Evil?” I’m confident that Scott would find Brown’s approach sympathetic, as I do, but it’s typical of the general discussion that her three Biblical examples all artificially isolate the death from its context.  Here’s the third version, concerning the Biblical story of the crossing of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptians who pursued the fleeing Israelites:

The water closed in on these enemies while the Israelites broke out in ecstatic singing following Moses’ recitation of the “Song of the Sea” found in Exodus 15. The angels, the text states, wanted to sing  but God turned to them and said “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?” Of course, there’s a desire to sing. There is a need to cry out in joy. But these knee-jerk reactions should be tempered by the larger question of what a human life is worth. Relief is appropriate. Celebration may just cross over a spiritual line. When it says in Genesis that we are created in God’s image it does not single out anyone as an exception to that rule. And if Osama Bin Laden did not treat others as if they were created in God’s image, let us not imitate that primal, vindictive impulse but transform it by affirming the goodness of humanity and the precious gift of life.

First of all, we’re not angels, and we’re not singing angelically.  Second of all… You never know what that Yahweh Guy wants.  He’s always criticizing us for something or other.

Third of all, and more to the main point, the key difference here is that “the water” didn’t just “close in” on OBL.  “We” – our political system through its leaders and system of justice – called for his capture or execution, and “we,” through our servant-leaders and fellow citizens at arms, answered that call. 

The feat of arms represents an excellence in itself, an exploit performed admirably well.  Prior to any determination of the rightness or the wrongness of the mission, everyone except Scott already takes pride, already is happy to see him- or herself reflected in the society that could produce Seal Team 6 (if that’s really what they’re called) and send them safely to smite a villain many thousands of miles from home.  Some of the celebration therefore suggests applause:  In familiar, if obviously trivializing, sports terms, OBL was poster-ized.  Finally.

The urge to applaud may be a pagan urge, but it’s also a deep-seated one.  Those condemning its expression are somewhat in the position of Boston Celtics fans objecting to LeBron’s 75′ chest pass to D-Wade. From a pagan point of view, a perspective a natural justice, it would be bizarre and a sign of deeply dysfunctional morality to mourn the death of a hated enemy, or to resist celebrating it.

Prior to any determination of rightness or wrongness, we feel safer – qualitatively safer – in the world.  As soon as we begin to consider right or wrong, most of us, possibly including Scott, are at least glad to see the OBL chapter closed.  Even if we bend over backwards like a Mondoweissian to blame OBL and all of his acts on ourselves, we can be glad to to turn the page past that episode of self-recrimination.  If we created him, as some maintain, then it was our moral responsibility to call him home, to clean up our mess.  Mess cleaned.

I’ll also add that we celebrate a sense of unity, a sense of the unity of the sane world as against extremism and the whole palette of pathologies associated with extreme acts.  It’s a chance for people to thump their chests not as Osama-killers, but as… normal – as people who don’t default to mass murder or to conspiracist paranoia; as people who are made a bit ill when not simply bored by Birtherism, Trutherism, and reflexive suspicion and condemnation of anything this or any previous President does; and as people who as a matter of fact don’t get overly excited about the abstract and infinitely uncertain moral issues raised by finally doing what we we said we wanted to do, and have been trying to do, for many years, at great expense, and, as concerns the event itself, at relatively small human cost.

Yes, we took a few lives, but, as Arnold tells Jamie Lee in TRUE LIES, they were all bad.  Woulda been nice if they could have been brought to a different point of view, but that’s not the way this world works, and getting to a world that works differently probably means neutralizing people like them, and doesn’t mean setting them up in t-shirt shops in Karachi.


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15 comments on “Brought us the head of Osama Bin Laden

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  1. Fortunately, I am not anywhere close to being alone in my beliefs. That was the whole point in posting the MLK quote, which still stands as a countering of the perspectives voiced here again. I understand that your perspective is nuanced. Mine-not so much. It goes along completely with what MLK and Gandhi taught. These are not fringe characters in the human drama. You error in your attempt to marginalize the perspective. Millions of people in this country alone see things as they did.

  2. @ Scott Miller:
    Believing we should react soberly, especially as regards the act itself rather than all of the other things it happens to represent or carry with it, is one thing. Condemning all military action or violence is another. The former may very well be an overwhelming majority position. Even some of the impulsive celebrants may come to acknowledge it. The other is the position of a tiny minority. That doesn’t make it wrong, of course. But having “millions” who agree with you in a country of 300+ million doesn’t say anything either. Millions of people believe… all sorts of stuff.

  3. @ miguel cervantes:
    I checked out the link, Miggs. Sounds like a good book. One thing I would say about the Gandhi quote about pre-war German Jews and about CK’s reference to God “always criticizing us for something or other” is that non-violence must always be adjusted to the present. If CK is right and this killing leads to closure and a new day, great. We are always in need of moving on from the violence. If Gandhi was wrong about the Jews and the efficacy of non-violence in that situation, fine. We move on. And as far as God goes, I’ve been meaning to suggest this book for a few days and this a good time. I highly recommend “Tattoos on the Heart” by Father Gregory Boyle. The whole point of the book is to help us relate to life in context of God loving us. Far from relating to the idea of God as being critical of us, Boyle wants us to see how wonderful life is when we relate to the Divine as something that loves us as we are in this moment. In this moment, we are not being violent with each other or promoting violent ideas. Is it possible for us to stay there, recognizing each other’s need to be loved and to be the one who fulfills that need?

  4. @ CK MacLeod:
    I’m not the boss of you, but you danced around the fact there that you made me an island unto myself. “Prior to any determination of the rightness or the wrongness of the mission, everyone except Scott already takes pride, already is happy to see him- or herself reflected in the society that could produce Seal Team 6 (if that’s really what they’re called) and send them safely to smite a villain many thousands of miles from home.”
    Now, you’ve indirectly corrected that statement. Millions of people do not take pride there. And here comes the New Age meanness:
    People who do take pride in it have low self-esteem. Granted, there are lots of people with low self-esteem.

  5. @ Scott Miller:
    It was just a little loose-written hyperbole, and a little metonymy, and some other stuff, you paranoid meanie, kind of making up for having expressed sympathy for your position, repeatedly. In other words, just a shorthand for “people who take Scott’s position.”

    “Low self-esteem”? Only by your definition. Different concepts or constructions or estimates of self and esteem.

  6. @ Scott Miller:
    You’re also neglecting the fact that Bring Me the Head hardly expresses unambiguous joy in vengeance or in being a tool of vengeance. You’re always giving me credit for all sorts of things I may or may not deserve credit for. Give me some credit for awareness of irony and tragedy.

  7. @ CK MacLeod:
    Let it be known that I, Scott Miller, believe CK MacLeod to be fully aware of irony and tragedy. I enjoy your awareness of irony and tragedy beyond measure and have on countless occasions stated that fact. If I weren’t such a meanie I would just go into that truth further in respect to the present post, but I can’t help relating things back to self-esteem. You know I’m your biggest fan. You know I credit you for having an unbelievably great awareness of irony and tragedy, but it hasn’t sunk in because you’re too busy taking pride in things that demean you and since my criticism counters everything I’ve tried to put forth in previous comments, here I am again, not helping. Is that ironic or tragic, or both?

  8. @ Scott Miller:
    If you consider having to deal with pseudo-real pseudo-life stuff non-demeaning but mean, then, yeah.

    I don’t accept, however, that thinking about the belief system of those who support actions like the hit on OBL, taking it on its own terms and exploring alternative moral contexts, is demeaning.

    I’m not a believe in absolute pacifism. Are you, actually?

  9. @ CK MacLeod:
    I believe in it, yes. Could I be trusted to follow through with a pacifist action as people around me were being gunned down? It might not go so well. My meanness might get the best of me. But in respect to advocacy, I believe that hate always swallows the hater no matter how justified the hating may be. Positioning ourselves for peace is the only way to give peace a chance in my opinion. I don’t believe we can position ourselves well and believe in the power of hate, so, in theory, I am willing to be a sacrifice for peace if necessary. In theory, I would rather be killed than kill to protect myself if that’s what you’re asking.

  10. @ Scott Miller:
    You don’t need to hate people to make war on them. In fact, it’s recommended against. Hatred throws off your aim or leads to poor decisions.

    Here’s what CS Lewis thought was possible and moral:

    Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves – to wish that he were not so bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. This is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not.

    Now, the above easily converts into something very “not nice” at all, a ready excuse to kill anyone who doesn’t believe in the right way, though that wasn’t CS Lewis’ belief.

    It touches on a discussion we’ve had before: The emotions felt by the soldier, or for that matter by the entire people engaged in war, are in principle irrelevant, except when they’re a problem, or can be channeled effectively, but they in principle have nothing to do with justifying the military operation or the larger war.

  11. CK MacLeod wrote:

    Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves – to wish that he were not so bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. This is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not.

    changed for accuracy in a different way than usual

  12. hunting after him for years and then executing him was a sign of respect for bin Laden and his teachings.

  13. Well, just for whatever edification, here’s the fuller context:

    . . . I imagine somebody will say, ‘Well, if one is allowed to condemn the enemy’s acts, and punish him, and kill him, what difference is left between Christian morality and the ordinary view?’ All the difference in the world. Remember, we Christians think man lives for ever. Therefore, what really matters is those little marks or twists on the central, inside part of the soul which are going to turn it, in the long run, into a heavenly or a hellish creature. We may kill if necessary, but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it… Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves – to wish that he were not so bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. This is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not.

    Other material on same themes at http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/05/why-shouldnt-we-celebrate-osamas-death/238424/

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