Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Thoughts on Reactions to Bin Laden's Death

Perhaps I'm just a colder fish than usual, but it's hard for me to get all that worked up about our final success in taking out Osama Bin Laden. There's a completeness to it all, but it's hardly something that would inspire me to grab a flag and rush out into the streets cheering.

If this meant that "the war is over, and everyone can come home" it would be different, but that was the kind of victory one used to see when organized modern state fought one another, not when fighting against a diffuse guerrilla organization. Hopefully, in the long run, this causes problems for Al Qaeda, but I would tend to fear that it is, by now, the sort of organization which can survive the loss of its totemic leader pretty easily. It's not as if people will stop shooting at out troops in Afghanistan today.

At the same time, I can't help feeling rather put off by come of the "How can we be such an unforgiving country as a celebrate someone's death" and "We should all be praying for Bin Laden's soul," commentary that I've seen in a few Catholic quarters. I'm ready to agree that allowing oneself to be sufficiently consumed with hate to celebrate death is problematic -- at the same time, this particular death is perceived (perhaps simplistically, but still) as a victory that will end terrorist attacks, which is something worth celebrating. And frankly, I think it would be the rare person who would have the right disposition to pray honestly for Bin Laden's eternal repose: too often "forgiving" or "praying for" some global scale bad guy is simply a gesture of high mindedness, a sort of spiritual showing off. I can forgive bigger than you can forgive.

This is not to say that forgiving those who do huge wrongs is never honest, but I think when we make a point of "forgiving" people who did big spectacular wrongs far away from us, it's very had to do so honestly. John Paul II showed his true sanctity when he forgave his assassin. He was, after all, the one affected, and the one able to offer forgiveness in some real sense. Some random TV news watcher half a world away could refrain from filling with hate at the pope's assassin, refrain from speculating loudly on how he should be punished, but it seems to me it would be spiritual self indulgence for him to announce, "I've forgiven the pope's assassin," and similarly for me to go around saying, "I forgive Osama Bin Laden."

Perhaps I'm thinking about this wrong. It's certainly quite normal for us to pray for people we don't know when we hear about some tragedy half a world away, affecting people we'll never know or see. Yet somehow that seems different. When we pray for the victims of some attack or natural disaster far away, we do so in part through a sympathy in which we imagine such an event happening to ourselves to to those we know. We identify, thus, with their suffering, and this helps us to pray for them.

I'm not sure that many of us this side of sainthood are all that good at doing the same when it comes to forgiving wrongs. Not to say that we shouldn't try to forgive wrongs, and refrain from hate, but that it's far to easy to make a big deal about forgiving those at a distance, while scorning those near by who have different (and more human) reactions.

Perhaps the more human check on the urge to celebrate an enemy's death would be to temper any glee at the idea of Bin Laden prematurely reaching his moment of judgment before the Almighty with the knowledge that we may, each one of us, find ourselves snatched away to that final judgment at a similarly unexpected time.


Steve said...

The news of bin Laden’s death is a pleasant surprise. Like millions of other people across the world, I am thrilled he is dead. Congratulations to the United States forces who killed him! U-S-A! U-S-A!

Christina said...

Your post reminded me of this quote from the Screwtape letters, "The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbors whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary."

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

My reaction has been similarly mixed. Perhaps it was because my internet/cable was out and I was only able to hear about the whole thing third-hand, but Bin Laden's death seemed a bit of a let down. After all that's happened over the past ten years, it was pretty anti-climactic.

Foxfier said...

I can honestly say that I'm glad the threat is gone...and that's about it.

I get the same impression you mention about the finger-wagging impulse on display.

Brandon said...

Very much in agreement with everything you say here.

Maiki said...


OTOH, Screwtape also says:

"Let him say that he feels hatred not on his own behalf but on that of the women and children, and that a Christian is told to forgive his own, not other people's enemies. In other words let him consider himself sufficiently identified with the women and children to feel hatred on their behalf, but not sufficiently identified to regard their enemies as his own and therefore proper objects of forgiveness."

I agree with the original post, in that rejoicing would be more meaningful If I felt this would bring about the end of this war. I empathized with the first two paragraphs and the last one.

Michael D. said...

And frankly, I think it would be the rare person who would have the right disposition to pray honestly for Bin Laden's eternal repose

Yes, but the only way to gain that disposition & virtue is the same way one acquires the other virtues: namely, practice. If one does not take these opportunities to forgive those so far removed from us (but who yet appear so evil), then one will find it more difficult to give that forgiveness when it hits closer to home.

Anne said...

I admit that when my sons told me of his death this morning the first word out of my mouth was "good." But the feeling that instantly overcame me was that of fear. Who will replace him in the reign of terror and will he do even more heinous things?

Darwin said...

If one does not take these opportunities to forgive those so far removed from us (but who yet appear so evil), then one will find it more difficult to give that forgiveness when it hits closer to home.

I'm not sure I agree with that.

If one makes a point of fostering hatreds against distant foes, I could see how one would eventually start responding more uncharitably to those nearby as well. But I'm not clear that a failure to actively pray for or forgive any particular person of note one hears about on the news is going to result in one losing the ability to deal charitably with those one knows.

This isn't to say that I think there's something wrong with forgiving or praying for Bin Laden (though I think it's probably a serious spiritual risk to not only talk about it loudly in public, but to excoriate extensively those who don't, and it seems like an easy doorway into pride) but I certainly don't think it's something that's required of anyone. I don't pray for Attila the Hun regularly either, even though I don't sit around wishing for his damnation.

Anonymous said...

Well, I just don't want to look as ugly as the Palestineans and other Mohammedans who celebrate every time some Christians get killed. Otherwise, I can easily throw up a prayer on occasion for OBL or whoever needs prayers the most ... even if my emotions don't quite correspond with my intention ... eh?

Brandon said...

There is in addition that forgiveness is not something everyone has the right to do. It is one thing to forgive someone for harm they have caused you in particular; but it's simply not consistent with Catholic doctrine to go around acting as if we had the authority to forgive people for crimes not committed against us. That is to arrogate to ourselves a right that the Catholic Church has always insisted belongs only to God. It would be different if any of us were seriously in the position to speak for all of Osama bin Laden's victims; but none of us are, and I cannot forgive him on their behalf.

So I don't think forgiveness is the key issue here at all -- Osama bin Laden's acts harmed so many people, Christian and Jew and Muslim alike, men and women and children, that there is no one short of Christ who can forgive him for it without being utterly presumptuous. Whether his death is something to celebrate is a different issue from whether we should forgive him, because the latter is a very narrow thing in comparison.

Darwin said...

Though actually, now I think about it, taking on the salvation of Attila as one's continuing intention has a certain endearing quality to it. Something that an interesting side character in a novel would do.

(Says the guy who, at the request of his father, visited the tomb of Theodoric and said a rosary for the repose of Theodoric's soul. Maybe I can be a side character in a novel myself.)

Arkanabar T'verrick Ilarsadin said...

I'm not one to celebrate any man's death, especially one who very likely did not accept the Faith. Nor do I need to have my revenge; God will have His, and that's sufficient for me.

But in the interest of justice and the lives of those whom he menaced, I don't think I'm going to complain that he's dead, either.

Foxfier said...

Though actually, now I think about it, taking on the salvation of Attila as one's continuing intention has a certain endearing quality to it. Something that an interesting side character in a novel would do.

...dang it, now I'm tempted to work it into a character build. Maybe an order of religious that focus on praying for those least likely to get the prayers they need.....

Mary said...

Here is how I handle it--that is-the confused urges regarding forgiveness and gleefulness in cases such as this.

When my babies were little, as I would bathe them and see their perfect loveliness, I was utterly overcome with the weight and implication, that yes, even the most misguided murderer came into the world as such an infant. It gave me great pause then, and still does now.

Sometimes then, a few intimations of what seems like an appropriate sentiment of....sadness for the tragedy of their lives...for them, bubble up.

But, I do agree that, for most it is much more real to truly forgive someone with whom you have had a personal struggle.

Calah said...

You know, Darwin, I have to say that I always appreciate your opinions on such things as these. You never say what I expect, but what you do say is always so clearly and thoroughly considered that I'm left contemplating aspects of the subject at hand that I wasn't even aware existed.

I think I agree with you. Thanks for the post.

Darwin said...


That's one of the better compliments I've ever received on my writing. Thanks.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Anyone besides me worried about terrorist reprisals? My first thought when I heard the news was, "Dang! Why couldn't they have waited until after the plane flight I have scheduled this week?" (I know. Totally selfish.)

Foxfier said...

Heh, I think EVERYONE is prepared for possible reprisals.

Of course, in my world you also apply basic force protection tactics like "don't be too predictable" and "listen to your instincts if they say someone is acting oddly or that something is wrong."
(Also makes driving a lot safer-- idiots running red lights three seconds after the light goes green for you are just as deadly as someone TRYING to kill you!)

Biggest change is that I sort of wish they'd get rid of base stickers already....

Tony said...

My first impression was to jump up and cheer because a malevolent man who had been plotting the deaths of innocents could no longer hurt anybody.

The next was to try and pray for his soul. Like with Darwin, that's really hard for me. But I think praying for someone evil imperfectly is better than not praying for them at all or hoping they are in hell.

Marie said...

I think part of the problem is that we are conflicted about what 9/11 was. Was it an act of war by one state upon another (even if the boundaries were nontraditional ones)? Or was it the act of a band of criminals?

If it is state vs. state, society vs. society, then the death of a leader who has had very little to do with much of the fighting over the intervening years is tangential.

But celebrating the death of Osama makes this feel like the response to a criminal act, police tracking down a murderer and killing him in his hideout, and that makes the wars we've been fighting feel tangential.

As for forgiving Osama, I prayed for him and felt sorrow at his death when I heard. I think it was on the car radio, right before I got white hot angry with my kid and griped at her for something or other. It was a ridiculous contrast that diminished my love of enemy, but the bigger fault was not in forgiving Osama, but in raging at my kid.

I think we need to remember that we are called to love our enemies. But when you love your enemy, he doesn't stop being your enemy. In fact, it would be easier if the admonition was to "think of your enemy as your friend instead, and then love him".

Foxfier said...

Good point-- although I'd say that it's C, not really being an act of war or just a crime.

Just because we're only accustomed to "war or crime" doesn't mean that's the only option-- this is more along the lines of a civilian form of war crime, something we haven't had to deal with much for centuries. (And when we did, it was when their sort didn't have as good of weapons.)

They probably think of it as society vs society, but they also come from the "I cannot lose" perspective-- basically, no matter what we do, we're 'cheating,' because we're the wrong religion/culture.
This really screws with our reasoning, because we just tend to automatically assume that who one is doesn't matter, it's what you do that matters.

Very much a culture clash, and our culture is predisposed to be polite. Dangerous.