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.