In order to mark the grisly 5-year anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, the CIA mock live-tweeted the Abbottabad raid during which he was killed. Outrage followed, but the impulse to celebrate someone’s death merits consideration.
On first thought, cheering someone’s death sounds vile. But if I’m honest, I don't know that I’ve ever been so gripped by the sentiment of patriotism as on that day, when I sat around a table with more than a dozen men, only one of whom — besides myself — was American.
I was living in the Community of Taizé, a French monastery well known as a pilgrimage site for young people for its beautifully haunting chants, and by its founder, Brother Roger. The men I lived with were fellow volunteers at the monastery, and though five years have now passed, I remain close with more than one, even across oceans.
The monastery had no Wi-Fi, few newspapers, and zero televisions, so we only learned about bin Laden’s death from the monk who shared breakfast with us every morning. He had a copy of Obama’s speech, and as one of the two Americans, I was chosen to read it to the polyglot group.
It came as a great surprise to me, when reading the speech aloud, to find my pulse quicken and my heart swell like the brass section playing the “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I was not, at the time, predisposed to feelings of patriotism — politically liberal, opposed to state violence, and living in an astoundingly multinational Christian community oriented toward peace and brotherhood.
But on that day I was proud.
When I finished reading the speech, one of the Germans — perhaps detecting my pride — looked straight at me.
“That sounds fascist,” he said, to nods of agreement — doubly damning when coming from a German, because of their own national history, as well as Germany’s otherwise great love for Obama. Little did we know that back in the U.S., there were many celebrating bin Laden’s death, with far more jubilation than I demonstrated.
On the subject of these celebrations, Salon, that chronicle of respectable liberal opinion, weighed in of course:
“When we lose the sadness part — when all we do is happily scream ‘USA! USA! USA!’ at news of yet more killing in a now unending back-and-forth war — it’s a sign we may be inadvertently letting the monsters win.”
Such a nuanced view of bin Laden’s death, however, did not prevent Salon from publishing Katie Halper’s “In defense of grave dancing” when Justice Antonin Scalia died last February. The author’s justification:
“Surely, whatever deficit of empathy I revealed paled in comparison to Scalia’s chasm of compassion.”
When Scalia died, the liberals did what they had bemoaned among the flag-waving set, but absent the honking horns and homemade signs. They didn’t, unlike the God-and-gun-clingers, have the courage to really delight in what they had set their minds on delighting in, except maybe in snide remarks made at a cocktail party.
“I’m in no way comparing Scalia and bin Laden,” Halper insists, but in fact she is, and it’s an offense to reason, to the thousands of bin Laden’s victims, and to Scalia and his family.
Both sides, evidently, are capable of celebrating someone’s death, but just because bin Laden was a terrorist doesn’t necessarily make celebrating his death OK.
So was I wrong to be proud of my country on May 2, 2011?
My post-fascist housemates thought so. I can’t remember which line or lines in particular they objected to, but I can’t imagine they appreciated this:
“And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.”
Was it, though? I’m sure that some families would indeed say that bin Laden’s death was some consolation, even if small. And I’m sure other families would say his death meant nothing to them. Given these competing reactions, can we really say whether justice was done?
It’s worth asking what “justice” actually is, especially when “social justice” is something we profess to care about so deeply.
Doubtlessly, there is no end to debates about the intricacies of the definition, but the plainest, most commonsense one must be: getting what you deserve.
That’s why we call it a “miscarriage of justice” to lock an innocent person up in prison — they got what they did not deserve.
That’s why we call voter suppression “injustice”— it is every citizen’s right to vote, something they deserve.
That’s why we call it “justice” when an employee sues their employer for stolen wages and wins what they are owed — as the scriptures say: “The laborer deserves to be paid.”
So what did bin Laden deserve?
In Romans, Paul tells us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and that “the wages of sin is death.” Absent the mercy of God, we all deserve death. But the eternal state of bin Laden’s soul is not ours to judge. “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”
And yet, as people concerned with justice (Latin: iustitia) in this world, we must make judgments (Latin: iudicia) of right and wrong and of what people deserve insofar as “the present form of this world” is concerned. In executing those judgments, how far do we go? We should free the unjustly convicted, certainly. We should imprison the child molester, absolutely. Should we kill the mass murderer?
The ancient Israelites had the particular bad manners to celebrate the death of their enemies, though Michael W. Smith might keep you from remembering. I can’t read the psalmist’s words, “His love endures forever” without the melody from the song “Forever” running on repeat through my mind. But Smith’s song leaves out some of the color of Psalm 136. In celebration of God’s love enduring forever, the Israelites sang such memorable lines as, “swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea,” “struck down great kings,” and “killed mighty kings,” two of whom they then proceed to name: Sihon, king of the Amorites, and Og, king of Bashan.
Some might argue that God does not actually want credit for drowning Pharaoh’s army or for the regicide of Sihon and Og, and either way we’d certainly be remiss to make America’s War on Terror any kind of equivalent to Israel’s Exodus. The United States is not God’s new chosen people.
But even the spiritual “O Mary Don’t You Weep,” which served as an antislavery and civil rights anthem, proclaims:
Oh Mary don't you weep no more,
Oh Mary don't you weep no more,
Pharaoh’s army got drownded,
Oh Mary don't you weep.
To insist on politeness — “why can’t you sing, ‘Pharaoh’s army got turned around?’” — artificially takes the edge off of what was a life-or-death struggle.
But ultimately, I’m grateful that when Jesus said “Love your enemies,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. decided that “Jesus was very serious … he wasn’t playing,” as he said in a 1957 sermon in Montgomery, Ala.
“In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.”
King chose to love because he knew the truth of the scriptures:
“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
Osama bin Laden was ultimately a pawn in a much larger, demonic game that got started before he existed, and his death amid piles of pornography and books about 9/11 conspiracy theories was probably an appropriately pathetic end. Mere politeness isn’t a good enough reason to refrain from celebrating his death, but the biblical view of good and evil teaches us that the real war between good and evil transcends human combatants.
God has in mind a much grander victory. When heaven opens, we will behold a white horse “whose rider is called Faithful and True.” I don’t know if we’ll have flags then, but if we do, I plan on waving one.