All We Can Ask from Death

Unless you’ve been living in a cave mansion outside of Islamabad hiding from the US government, you’ve probably heard that Osama bin Laden was killed last night in a firefight. For many, the most appropriate response was obvious: unadulterated joy with a robust helping of national unity and patriotism on top. And who can blame them? Osama bin Laden was a hateful, opportunistic murderer, a terrorist mastermind who took advantage of anti-American sentiment in Saudi Arabia and whipped it into a lethal boil. He is personally responsible for the death of thousands of Arabs, Americans, Muslims, atheists…people. If anyone deserved to die, he did.

Even so, there were those of us who did not have quite that reaction, for whom bloodlust and triumph did not immediately course through our veins. Some of us were quiet, thinking of the significance of the event. Some of us were grim, feeling vindicated in that there was one fewer murderer on earth, but not feeling exactly exultant, either. My response was some mix of these, but it was altered because I heard the news during a House Meeting, in a room full of people, many of whom took the first tack. Instead of having the time to sit and think and digest, I was immediately thrust into a party-like atmosphere in which Team America had won once again, and all would be right in the world if only our testosterone-soaked heroes could be allowed free reign. Good news had come at last from the unending wars! Let us rally around it in an orgy of patriotism and victory.

At least, that’s how it felt to me. In contrast, I felt hesitant, that something was not quite right about the reveling in death that was going on. I expressed these sentiments on facebook and twitter, letting it be known that I felt there was much more to Osama’s death than a simple check for America’s win column. To start, the death was more symbolic than anything else. It’s possible that his death will weaken the various Al-Qaeda affiliates, hamper their ability to communicate, and undermine their capacity to recruit. It’s also possible that they will become highly angered and the Middle East will be less safe for a while. Either way, Osama had been doing very little of the on-the-ground planning of late, and it seemed frankly silly to count such a psychologically significant yet geopolitically unsubstantive victory as meaningful.

It also seemed to disrespect the vast complexities of which Osama was a symbol: the two unending wars, the changes wrought in the American psyche, the culture of fear created, here and abroad, increases in Islamophobia and hate-crimes, the still unfinished Ground Zero Monument, anti-American sentiment the world over, the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in Iraq and Afganistan, the controversial drone attacks. But for the night, none of it seemed to matter. In a way, it was a tacit acknowledgement. Americans were so hungry for a victory that they leaped on the action-movie-like story of a Special Ops force, a firefight, a mansion, an exotic South Asian country and dead target. When I expressed this idea, I was told in no uncertain terms that “Its not anymore complex than 3000 innocent Americans, your fellow countrymen.” But there was still something farcical about letting the droplet of success wash over us as the waves of the uncertain path forward continued to churn. That’s why, I suppose, I was so bothered by Obama calling for national unity because we’d killed Osama bin Laden. It’s not that there’s so much wrong with that on its own, but rather that Osama is part of something so much larger, and the call for national unity just serves as a veneer. I wish so deeply, I suppose, that there had been a call for national unity when the Iraqis had their first election, or on the day Obama announced we were exiting Iraq. There wasn’t, because those were not unequivocally good happenings, and there were a lot of mixed feelings. People may have been upset if it were implied that those were things everyone had a duty to support. That’s how I feel about this, because bin Laden himself was just a man, and the tip of an enormous iceberg.
Then there’s how we react to the death itself. Frankly, I was a little disgusted by the streamers and the celebration. I understood it, certainly, and how profoundly human of a response that was, but I wish we’d had the wherewithal to overcome those particular instincts and instead acknowledge the importance and significance of the death, to reflect on his life and the destruction he cause, to think of the 9/11 victims and their families, to ponder the aftermath of 9/11 and how the world was forever changed, and not, perhaps, to throw America-themed frat parties, sing Queen’s We Are the Champions and begin dancing in the streets. Americans celebrated death last night. 
I know there was a lot going on, I’ve had the conversations, and I know there were legitimate causes for celebration. But there was a blatant current of outright self-satisfied, self-aggrandized, smug gratification in our accomplishment. And it just seems like death, especially one I felt wasn’t quite as important as everyone was making it out to be, isn’t something we ought to glorify. It’s a tad unseemly, yes, a tad grotesque, yes, but more importantly, it runs counter to very important values.

As Americans, we value, supposedly, due process, which Osama (for very good reason) never had. We do not relish the meting out of justice. As a humanist, I value life. I reject wholeheartedly these all-too-religious overtones of good and evil, black and white, that human lives are valuable until we deem them irredeemable, at which point they become worthless. Osama was evil, so the story goes, and so his life no longer mattered. He may have deserved to die, but I reject the narrative that says that there exist pure good and evil in the world, and that we eradicate evil by whatever means necessary, as if morality itself were not a natural phenomenon, and as if the cultivation of moral excellence were not the task of a lifetime. James Croft did an excellent job of pointing out the history of this line of thinking in the humanist movement:

Humanism and its Aspirations declares that “Humanists are concerned for the well being of all”, and makes no distinction between the wicked and the just, the good and the evil. The Humanist Manifesto II is abundantly clear: “The preciousness and dignity of the individual person is a central humanist value.” So is the first Humanist Manifesto, saying “humanism will affirm life rather than deny it”.

The humanist perspective shows us that while we may have to kill, we simply do not have to revel in it. We should despair at every human life lost, to death, to destruction, to monstrous beliefs and behavior.

And if that plea to a shared humanity does not move you, a much more analytic approach exists. I subscribe to the ethical theory called desirism. If you don’t want to read about it, what you basically need to know is that it relies on desires as reasons for action, and modulation of those desires as ways of ensuring that more desires are fulfilled rather than thwarted. I find it clear, then, that we have many and strong reasons to condemn the desire to kill and be joyful in the killing, because humans are not so good at containing those emotions and applying them only in the appropriate circumstances. Humans are not so good at overcoming violent tribalist jingoistic instincts, and using patriotism to come together over shared values instead of policing self-identification boundaries by a country border. Humans are not so good at erring on the side of not killing rather than killing. Humans are not so good at affirming life, a value we have many and strong reasons to strengthen, as it is, and I will have nothing be a setback to reminding us everyday that the enemies we see around us are protagonists in their own narrative, are doing what they think best, are human just like us.

In my thinking about this issue, I’ve been taking inspiration from some interesting sources.

In Leviticus, 18:18, in the midst of many reactionary and troubling decrees, the Hebrew god tells the Israelites, that they must, 

“not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.”

“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.”

A more recent source gave us,

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, 
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
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.  
The deal is that this quote was said by MLK, except for the first line that was here previous, which goes something like: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” I think that’s a beautiful sentiment too, but I don’t know how to attribute it, so I’ll just leave it here. 

On facebook, someone said, 

See, regardless he was still a person. Start dehumanizing someone, even someone like him, and you forget your own values. We are better than that, or we hope to be.”

My friend Sandra wrote a beautiful piece on the same issue here.
The movies Munich and Inglorious Basterds stylized and hyperbolized our trusted protagonists, forcing the audience to be revolted at the bleak humanity present even in our heroes.

And Orson Scott Card, that brilliant author who has changed my life more than once, penned some incredibly beautiful thoughts that he threaded effortlessly into his narratives:

In Ender’s Game, Ender says to Valentine, the sister who cannot understand that he has become a killer, a monster in his own right, 

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”

Bean learns this message, and many books later, has an encounter with an incredibly evil enemy, with a pathological disregard for human life. And this is what transpires:


Achilles laughed nervously. “Come on now, Bean. We’ve known each other a long time.” He had backed up against a wall. He tried to lean against it. But his legs were a little wobbly and he started to slide down the wall. “I know you, Bean,” he said. “You can’t just kill a man in cold blood, no matter how much you hate him. It’s not in you to do that.” 

“Yes it is,” said Bean. 

He aimed the pistol down at Achilles’s right eye and pulled the trigger. The eye snapped shut from the wind of the bullet passing between the eyelids and from the obliteration of the eye itself. His head rocked just a little from the force of the little bullet entering, but not leaving. Then he slumped over and sprawled out on the floor. Dead. 

It didn’t bring back Poke, or Sister Carlotta, or any of the other people he had killed. It didn’t change the nations of the world back to the way they were before Achilles started making them his building blocks, to break apart and put together however he wanted. It didn’t end the wars Achilles had started. It didn’t make Bean feel any better. There was no joy in vengeance, and precious little in justice, either. 

But there was this: Achilles would never kill again.  

That was all Bean could ask of a little .22.

That Osama bin Laden will never kill again may indeed be all we can ask. Not that the wars end, or that freedom triumphs, but that we have taken a small step in a protracted campaign, and that all we can do is hope, and keep trying.

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Updates from the blogosphere:

A more appropriate response to his killing would be to mourn the many tragedies that led up to his violent death, as well as the violent deaths of thousands in the attempt to eliminate him from the face of the Earth; to feel compassion for anyone who, because of their role in the military or government, American or otherwise, has had to play any role in killing another.”


“American citizens often like to think of themselves as good Christians—decent, kind God-fearing people who defend what’s right even when that’s difficult, just as Jesus would have. Last night was an opportunity to live up to that ideal, to let the world know that we are powerful but we’re not drunk with power. Instead, we got wasted and said we wanted to rub our balls on Osama’s dead face, belying American exceptionalism by not acting exceptional, but entirely common.”