On May 1, 2011, President Barack Obama reported that al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was officially dead. Rumors suggest that SEAL Team Six was the end of the line for the man who planned and orchestrated the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the defeated attack on Washington, DC. The President suggests that this is a turning point in the nearly decade long global war on terror that is no longer called the Global War on Terror, and that this event is long-awaited justice for those innocents killed in what has become known as this generation’s Pearl Harbor moment.
So why don’t I feel like celebrating?
Primarily, because I don’t consider war to be a cheering matter. When the news broke, there was celebration in the streets, overwhelming chants of “USA, USA, USA” at the White House between rounds of The Star-Spangled Banner, and wave after wave of patriotic and religious praise channeled through networks like Facebook and Twitter. The death of public enemy number one became a reason to frolic and rejoice in the streets because it was justice. But what is justice, and has it been served?
On September 11, 2001, approximately 3,000 people died from all walks of life and spiritual beliefs at the hand of nineteen terrorists. Since then, the highest estimate of casualties has been 1.2 million dead in the fight against terrorism. That number may be conservative – the lowest estimate is just over one million – but will continue to rise as hostilities continue and the delayed health effects of responders to the World Trade Center site start being factored in. On the concept of justice, Wikipedia offers the crowd-sourced definition of a “concept of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, law, natural law, religion, fairness, or equity, along with the punishment of the breach of said ethics.” It also states that there are five variations of justice, but I believe the one that President Obama suggested would be that of retributive justice: The proportionate response to crime proven by lawful evidence so that the punishment is justly imposed and considered as morally correct and fully deserved. Go a step further to lex talionis, the law of retaliation, which is a military theory centered on reciprocity being equal to the wrong suffered. Are we expected to believe that the life of one man, Osama bin Laden, is equated to 3,000 innocents at a minimum? How about 1.2 million, including innocent women and children who have euphemistically become known as “collateral damage”? Do the scales balance because a Navy SEAL ended one man’s existence in the names of thousands or millions?
It is well documented that President George W. Bush took to this war based on what he determined was a calling from God. Inherent to the concept of lex talionis is the principle “an eye for an eye”, which appears numerous times in the Bible and other religious texts, and it seems that many of the social celebrations to yesterday’s event focus on one deity or another bestowing blessings upon the American people for exacting lex talionis.
Now I lay me down to sleep, one less terrorist this world does keep.
With all my heart I give my thanks, to those in uniform regardless of ranks.
You serve our country and serve it well, with humble hearts your stories tell.
So as I rest my weary eyes, while freedom rings our flag still flies.
You give your all, do what you must; with God we live and God we trust.
–various sources on Facebook
Martin Luther King, Jr – paraphrasing Mahatma Ghandi – once said, “Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding.” While this war is not about racial justice, is about justice based on matters of faith. Al-Qaeda did not declare war on the United States because they hate our blue jeans, fast cars, tall towers, or apple pie. Al-Qaeda is based on an extremist interpretation is Islam, and that faith is what drove them to attack us because our diversity of faiths makes us inferior to them. Despite protests to the contrary, this fight is one of religion and whose god has a bigger piece of the pie. It’s not a new battle – the Crusades and the Inquisition show us that – and it has no easy solutions, but I feel that the word racial in Reverend King’s quote can be substituted by religious along with any other form of justice. I’m not so sure that justice has been served in this case, and I certainly do not feel that it is a moment of celebration or victory.
What people don’t seem to understand about this conflict is that we don’t have a distinct enemy to fight against. When Adolf Hitler was declared dead – interestingly, on May 1, 1945 – the Nazi armies surrendered the very next day. This demoralization isn’t the case with al-Qaeda. We’ve taken out significant chunks of their command structure before, and like the mythological hydra, two new heads would grow back in the form of a person to take the place of the fallen and new tactics to avoid making the same mistake again. The fall of Osama bin Laden doesn’t mean that the war is over, nor does it mean that our troops are coming home. In fact, I would venture that al-Qaeda will only become stronger or, at the very least, more cunning in its methods. I agree that we should be happy that one powerful avenue of hatred and violence has been eliminated, but I greatly fear for what darkness lies at the bottom of that Pandora’s Box. What has bin Laden’s death unleashed upon us in retaliation for what the enemy will likely see as another murder perpetrated by the western terror?
Another source of contention has been the disposition of the body. While Muslim death rites are somewhat shrouded in secrecy, it has come to light that the body must be buried within 24 hours to hold with religious tradition. While morbid and disgusting jokes of stuffing the corpse so every American can take a whack at it like some macabre piñata have surfaced, some have taken this as an offense to those killed since 2001. I firmly believe that, no matter the evil perpetrated in life, any person’s death should be respected. If they took our corpses and burned them in effigy or fed them to a pack of wild dogs, we would be livid. People, including those of deep religious and spiritual faith should consider that before calling for desecration of a corpse in the name of revenge.
“The rabbis say that, as the Israelites celebrated the death of the Egyptians, so did the angels. But God stilled them and ordered them to stop their rejoicing. ‘But why?’ the angels ask. ‘Look what they did to Your children.’ And God answered, ‘These too are My children!’”
What I don’t doubt about the death of Osama bin Laden is that it will be a source of morale for a country weary of war. After a decade of gains and losses that effectively cancel each other out, this marks a moment where something substantial has been accomplished. If maintained, this momentum can be harnessed to usher in a new era of support for both politicians and fighting forces. Having been in the uniform, I understand the need for morale boosts in providing purpose for your efforts. But, remember that war is sterile only from the safety of the armchair. War is a bloody, disgusting, destructive mess, and I have yet to meet a veteran who was proud of what he or she had done in theater. They are usually proud of having contributed to peace, but I don’t recall any pride or joy stemming from pulling a trigger, sending a round downrange, and becoming the messenger of death for another human being.
If I have to be proud of killing a terrorist, I have to be proud of every time one of our enemies has died in the name of stopping terrorism. That means I have to be proud of the terrorists who die in allied bombing runs that kill innocents, and that is something I cannot support. War is necessary because politics and diplomacy cannot solve every social or cultural difference in the world, but that doesn’t mean I have to celebrate it or be proud of it. I don’t see anything to celebrate in killing another human being, and I certainly don’t see justice even if you look beyond the “eye for an eye” version Americans seem to crave. I think we need to remember that revenge is indeed a dish best served cold, and this doesn’t make me un-American or unpatriotic or even an enemy sympathizer. Killing Osama bin Laden has not restored the 3,000 lives taken ten years ago, and it certainly has not restored the 1.2 million lost since then. The scales cannot be balanced exclusively by steps such as these, but this is one more step toward a possible peace.
Peace is something I can celebrate.