Several weeks ago, throngs of Americans in New York City and Washington, D.C., came together to celebrate the calculated assassination of a mass-murdering, self-proclaimed jihadist.
Immediately, the thought came to me that we are just like them: those in Afghanistan and Iraq, publicly exhibiting limbs and souvenir weapons of killed American soldiers; those in Iran and Pakistan, burning flags and presidential effigies in a collective fervor; and those ethnic citizens rallying outside of their respective countries’ American and British embassies, calling for an end to the war crimes being perpetrated by U.S. officials and forces.
For much of the time I have been occupied in following the war journeys on which we have embarked, I have often felt proud of the fact that U.S. citizens have seemingly embraced victory, albeit at great cost, through humility, and in the fleeting expectation that we have only acted with deadly force when no other options were available.
As these wars have dragged on, so many images have brought me to realize instead that we are just like them.
Was the killing of Bin Laden necessary and justified? Is the world safer in his absence than it was in his presence? These are rhetorical and simple questions. The real quandary that we, adults and adolescents, tucked safely away in this academic, impenetrable kingdom, face is this: Should we publicly celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden? Should we cheer “USA! USA! USA!” in the dining hall and open spaces? Should we pump our fists because we got him? Bring it further, and describe it as it is: Do we love to see our enemies suffer? The hard reality, it seems, is that we Americans, projected on that day to the world in the videos of the joyful chaos we demonstrated, take genuine joy in Bin Laden’s death.
Rather than be critical of that fact, let us accept it at face value and additionally ask this question: Is there any reason to resist the temptation to celebrate Bin Laden’s death? Down what road are we headed if Bin Laden’s death is such an intrinsic, patriotic aphrodisiac? Hey–that felt good! I gotta get me some more of that stuff! If killing him was important enough to hear a call for a national holiday honoring American pride, then are we not moving toward a nationalist position that is more carnal and less human? Let’s not forget that even Nazism had humble roots.
Most often, the sudden death of someone influential–-such as Princess Diana, President Kennedy, or Reverend King–- invites us to the realization of the magnitude of human potential that has been lost in death. The more recent joyful and public responses we saw in Bin Laden’s death flip the paradigm completely and seemingly present his death as something gained in our collective humanity. Ask your friend, your parents, or your god: Can anything be gained by annihilating human life?
Take care not to answer this question quickly: situational ethics are always biased. If the destruction of life results in our personal joy, we need to be wary of what lies ahead for us on our social and spiritual horizon, especially when we recognize that our own country’s weapons of mass destruction are but an impulsive moment away from launch. We need to be wary to not become like them.
It is both critical and natural to fear our descent in this regard; if Bin Laden’s life meant nothing to us, and further yet his death meant everything, then we should make sure to tread with caution in our newfound roles of judge and executioner. In this regard, humility and self-reflection should prevail, lest the thrill of the sound of our gavel and the swing of our axe emerge as actions that give happiness, sustenance… and a desire for more.
Jan Flaska is the assistant Dean of Students and the Dean of Spiritual and Ethical Life. Congratulations to his family on the birth of Emma Day!