Osama bin Laden – a man whose purpose in life was to inflict death and suffering on as many innocent people as possible – was finally killed, and much of the Western world’s religious and secular elite have expressed moral objections to those who celebrated this death.
Pastor Brian McLaren, named one of Time magazine’s “25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America” in 2005, expressed this objection. Reacting to television images of young Americans chanting “USA! USA!” the night bin Laden’s death was announced, the pastor wrote, “I can only say that this image does not reflect well on my country. … Joyfully celebrating the killing of a killer who joyfully celebrated killing carries an irony that I hope will not be lost on us. Are we learning anything, or simply spinning harder in the cycle of violence?”
And CNN reported the objection of an Episcopal priest, Danielle Tumminio, whose Long Island neighborhood lost scores of people in the 9/11 attacks.
When she saw images of Americans celebrating, “My first reaction was, ‘I wish I was with them.’ … My second reaction was, ‘This is disgusting. We shouldn’t be celebrating the death of anybody.’ It felt gross.”
Likewise, many Jews, including rabbis, have cited traditional – though seemingly conflicting – Jewish attitudes regarding how to react to the death of evildoers.
One frequently cited source is a famous one from the Talmud: “When the Egyptians were drowning in the Sea of Reeds, the angels wanted to sing. But God said to them, ‘The work of my hands is drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?’”
Also cited is the biblical book of Proverbs: “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice, and when he stumbles, let your heart not exult.”
On the other hand, the Talmud also states, “When the wicked perish from the world, good comes to the world.” And the book of Proverbs also states, “When the wicked perish, there is joyful song.”
So what is one to make of this mixture of sentiments?
I do not see them as contradictory. God may chastise angels for singing at the drowning of the Egyptian army. But God does not chastise Moses and the Children of Israel for singing at the Egyptians’ drowning. People may do so; angels may not.
Secondly, it is one thing to celebrate the fall of one’s personal enemy; it is quite another to celebrate the fall of evil individuals. The two Proverbs citations are not contradictory. The vast majority of our personal “enemies” are not evil people. Therefore, we should not exult at their downfall. And the vast majority of the truly evil are not our personal enemies. Bin Laden was not my personal enemy. He was the enemy of all that is good on earth.
It seems to me that if one does not celebrate the death of a truly evil person, one is not celebrating the triumph of good over evil. I do not see how one can honestly say, “I am thrilled that bin Laden can no longer murder men, women and children, but I do not celebrate his death.”
Yes, one can argue that bin Laden’s arrest and life imprisonment would have also prevented his murdering anyone else. But keeping him alive would have inspired others terrorists to murder on his behalf or to take hostage innocent Americans and others in the hope of forcing America to release bin Laden.
Celebrating the death of bin Laden is a moral imperative. The notion that Islamists who celebrated 9/11 are morally equivalent to Americans who celebrated bin Laden’s death is the essence of moral confusion. It equates the killing of 3,000 innocents with the killing of the person responsible for those 3,000 murders.
All those rabbis and others who think it immoral or un-Jewish to celebrate bin Laden’s death will one day have to confront a Jew named Arie Hassenberg, a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau. As quoted by Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander, after one of the Auschwitz sub-camps (Monowitz) was bombed by the Allies, Hassenberg’s reaction was: “To see a killed German; that was why we enjoyed the bombing.”
Was Hassenberg’s reaction morally wrong or “un-Jewish” – or “un-Christian,” for that matter? I don’t think so. What distinguishes Hassenberg from those who lament celebrating the death of the truly evil is that Hassenberg encountered the truly evil.
A longer version of this column appeared in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.