On the Death of Osama bin Laden

Sunday night as I was watching television after a long day, I, like much of the nation, heard that there was going to be an upcoming announcement from President Obama.  An unplanned late-Sunday-evening announcement from the President is clearly unusual.  My immediate thought was that something horrible had happened--horrible, that is, for citizens of the United States and its military.  So it was with some joy and relief that I learned that instead of our soldiers or civilians being dead, it was Osama bin Laden.  I admit to some immediate partisan joy that this had happened under this particular president's watch.  And I shared in some joking about the timing of the president interrupting Celebrity Apprentice.  I admit to some joy at him being removed from a position of continued threat, and some relief that this was news of success for our country. 

These are my first reactions, my gut reactions.  They do not necessarily represent my best reactions or religious reactions, and that's the point that I want to make today.  I understand why people want to go out and be with other people in the streets and celebrate.  It is a natural reaction after a long period of cultural grief that we pin on this man, Osama bin Laden. 

But at the same time I felt immediate sorrow that this hunt for Osama bin Laden, our figurehead for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, had ended with a killing.  I wished immediately that we had captured this man alive rather than taking another life.  I am not a pacifist, although I do believe that war always represents a failure, and I am also against the death penalty.  To me, this killing, although it was done in a combat situation, it seems, represented a failure on our part to some degree, as well as, of course, the enormous political success of having finally captured this man our government and military was looking for for so long.  I don't say "failure" to blame the military--I think it was a failure on Osama bin Laden's part that led to this outcome, for the most part.  He chose a path of hatred and violence, and I grieve that he chose this path up until the end.  But every death that ends in violence is also to some extent a failure on the parts of everyone involved, including us, the American people. 

I think our best reaction, as a people, is not to celebrate, but to mourn.  A quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. that's been making the rounds illustrates the sentiment:
Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, 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. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence and toughness multiples toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.
(Note that many of the versions being shared have a sentence tacked on the beginning that was not King's, but the rest of the statement--all of that quoted above--was his.  Jessica Dovey, Facebook user and English teacher apparently wrote the now oft-quoted sentence, "I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.")  One of the quickest ways we justify rejoicing at Osama bin Laden's death is by dehumanizing him, by making him pure evil, almost the devil himself.  That's the response I heard from friends and acquaintances as the discussion launched from one Facebook friend's post to another: "He was evil."  Once we make him evil, he becomes less than human, and we can respond with pure hate and pure rejoicing at his death. 

There have been a lot of good articles about the Christian response to Osama bin Laden's death.  A Vatican spokesperson said, "In the face of a man's death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred."

Emotions are high about this.  When my colleague James Ford used the word "glad," he got some apparently heated responses including one suggesting he could no longer teach the Buddhadharma.  On the other hand, I've seen some pretty heated responses to some friends suggesting that gladness is the wrong approach.  We're quick to chastise each other on both sides.  I can't condemn anyone for a feeling of gladness--I experienced that same lifting of spirit myself, instinctively.  (And it appears Ford wasn't talking about gladness at death--read his own words for an explanation.)  What I can come back to is to say that feeling gladness at the death of Osama bin Laden is not my best self, nor my religious self.  It does not reflect my values nor my theology.

What is the Unitarian Universalist response to this man's death?  We have no set creed, but freedom of religion, so of course there is no one set response.   But in our religious tradition we also know that we believe people are not inherently evil.  Our Universalist heritage reminds us that no one is damned forever.  And so I experience sorrow that we were not able to find the good in Osama bin Laden and that he chose a path of violence and death, and that we followed, chasing him on that path, and being on it ourselves.  Our principles, while not a creed, also serve as a touchstone in times like this.  The remind us of the inherent worth and dignity of every human being--every single one.  So at times like this, when it is easy to fill up with hatred, I remind myself of the inherent worth and dignity of anyone that I might want to call "enemy."  I look, too, to the principle that we strive for justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.  There are many quick to say that Osama bin Laden's death is "justice served."  Perhaps it is -- although, I think justice is better done by a court than by a bullet.  But it is not "compassion served," certainly.  Can we feel compassion for Osama bin Laden, individually or as a people?  What would that look like?  I'm not there yet.  I don't feel compassion for him.  But I think I would be better for trying to.


Michelle said…
Well put... Ben came home happy that all of this had come about. It was disturbing. He said, "aren't you happy mom?". I said, "no, I'm not happy or sad," but I couldn't explain how I felt. This pretty much sums it up. This provoked a discussion with Ben after I read the blog to him. Thanks:)
Nana said…
An excellent reflection, Cindy.
Cynthia Landrum said…
Got a very nice comment that said this, which I accidentally deleted and couldn't recover:

Susan Gammon has left a new comment on your post "On the Death of Osama bin Laden":

Hi Cynthia,
After reading this very thoughtful blog, and your being able to eloquently state my very feelings, and also some messages that I needed to hear in general, I saw your name and remember you from your time at First Church in Milwaukee. Great job, thank you!

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