Rejoicing at Bin Laden’s Death?


By now, we’ve all seen the celebrations.

They took place spontaneously at Ground Zero, at the White House, on campuses throughout the country, and, most likely, in the homes of the nearly 3,000 families whose lives were permanently altered close to a decade ago, in the early morning of a clear Tuesday.

I understand the outpouring of emotion at Bin Laden’s death, the feeling that “justice has been done,” as President Obama announced in a televised address last night.

I support his somber, not gloating tone, and appreciate the assertion he made again that we are not at war with Islam for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Osama Bin Laden killed many Muslims.

Still, a part of me feels uneasy at the celebration, even though I have to admit that, had I been there 66 years ago to the day when Adolf Hitler took his life in a Berlin bunker, I’m pretty confident I would have been cheering, too.

Dr. King once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

I’m inclined to agree.

I mourn the loss of the nearly 3,000 people who were killed, yet somehow have trouble rejoicing at the murder of the architect of their death.

I remember reading once what Gandhi said just hours before his assassination when asked by legendary journalist Margaret Bourke-White about how he would confront an atomic bomb with nonviolence. She recounted the following:

Ah’ he said. ‘How should I answer that? I would meet it by prayerful action.’ I asked what form that action would take. ‘I will not go underground. I will not go into shelters. I will go out and face the pilot so he will see I have not the face of evil against him.’

Gandhi went on to say,

“But the longing in our hearts that he will not come to harm would reach up to him and his eyes would be opened.” 

Sound ridiculous, or, at the least, hopelessly idealistic?  Sure, on some level.

And yet.

I also remember reading famed Buddhist priest Thich Nhat Hanh, when asked about what he would say to Osama Bin Laden after the September 11 attacks:

If I were given the opportunity to be face to face with Osama bin Laden, the first thing I would do is listen. I would try to understand why he had acted in that cruel way. I would try to understand all of the suffering that had led him to violence. It might not be easy to listen in that way, so I would have to remain calm and lucid. I would need several friends with me, who are strong in the practice of deep listening, listening without reacting, without judging and blaming. In this way, an atmosphere of support would be created for this person and those connected so that they could share completely, trust that they are really being heard. 

After listening for some time, we might need to take a break to allow what has been said to enter into our consciousness. Only when we felt calm and lucid would we respond. We would respond point by point to what had been said. We would respond gently but firmly in such a way to help them to discover their own misunderstandings so that they will stop violent acts from their own will.

Again, easy to dismiss as a praying fool, and is there absolutely nothing there.

I’ll be honest.

My thinking on international intervention has evolved, starting with the U.S.-led bombing of Kosovo in 1999.  In that case, I thought Noam Chomsky was wrong when he called for the United States to do nothing.

I also understand that, while nonviolence is not only laudable, but the philosophy around which I have organized my adult life, there are limits to it and, indeed, at times there very well may need to be another way.

I also have read the work of Tim Tyson and other historians who have pushed back against what they perceive as the mythologizing of the civil rights movement, pointing out both that nonviolence worked because it was in the context of more violent alternatives and that some of its most renowned practitioners, like Dr. King, carried guns.

I understand all of that.

But I’m also thinking about the section in the Hagaddah when G-d chides the angels who are celebrating the demise of the Egyptians in the Red Sea after letting the Jews pass through safely.

Although he closed the sea on them, he also did not want people rejoicing at the destruction of any of his creatures, even those who had chosen evil and caused great harm.

I am glad that the evildoer is gone, yet I do not rejoice at his death.  Although I am not a religiously observant person, I did relate to the following verse from the book of Proverbs, ““Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.”

I  hope that you take this post in the light in which it is offered-an honest attempt to sift through a wave of contradictory and inconsistent thoughts, emotions and positions about the death of a man whose evil actions brought and continue to bring so much pain to so many.

As always, comments, discussion and opinion are welcome.

Particularly now.


5 responses to “Rejoicing at Bin Laden’s Death?

  1. David Russell

    I like what you have to say here, Jeff. I’m glad that’s he’s gone but do not rejoice in his death either. It felt weird to me all the cheering, as though a touchdown had just been scored in an important game. I wish that it was so simple; we have got to know that it is not. “By any means necessary” is a seductive slogan, but it is truly a dangerous one. We’ve got to fear the righteous certainty that comes with believing that because we are right we can do anything to advance that cause. I hope that we are wiser. Especially those of us who have lived some decades of adulthood must know that the world is not just good guys and bad guys. Thank you for having the presence of mind and perhaps courage to speak skeptically.

  2. Alice Lowenstein

    I woke up, turned on the TV and saw the program celebrating the celebration. I had been asleep. I was horrified. I was 8 when Hitler died. I remember how happy I was. Mostly, I remember the celebration when World War ll was over. We celebrated an end to killing each other. We danced. We sang. We hugged each other.

    Since then I’ve learned about demonizing someone. It wasn’t only Hitler just like it wasn’t only Bin Laden. It was also what our foreign policy was, how President Bush thought. how our country has behaved that has caused so much suffering to others.

    When all of us Americans become aware of the negative consequences of what we do, then those who lost someone can have closure. We cannot change others. We can change ourselves. When we understand, those who lost someone they loved can begin changing us into a more peaceful country.

  3. The subject of your post, minus the excellent and illuminating quotes, has been the subject of my own thoughts and conversations with friends. What’s the difference between the videos and photos of some in the Arab world cheering at the spectacle of the collapsing towers and today’s videos and photos of Americans behaving the same with the news of Osama bin Laden’s assassination? Cheering death is a conundrum not easily resolved. Death is not a solution, only a result. We’re no closer to a solution to peace and understanding than we were ten years ago. I fear that we’re part of the problem for not finding and supporting the kinds of politicians who have the courage to unite populations by listening, mediating and finding the third path. Here and abroad, national, regional, and religious self interest and monetary interests rule today. In my opinion, those are mightier adversaries than Osama bin Laden.

  4. When I heard Osama bin Laden had been killed, one of my first images was of a very brief meeting I had in 2003 with an Investment Banker on Chicago’s South Side. I don’t recall his name, but I vividly remember the sudden change in his facial expression. We quickly discovered we were native Bostonians and had a good laugh or two about the home front. He mentioned he had worked for the investment banking firm Sandler O’Neill for many years prior to his current stint for Countrywide in California. I shared with him that I had just met an investment banker from Sandler O’Neill, who had shared with me that many of his partners had been killed in the twin towers on 9/11/01. Suddenly the happy go lucky Bostonian became very somber, almost ashen. He knew the Sandler O’Neill partner well, and like him, was out of town on business when Osama bin Laden’s minions committed their heinous crime. In fact, he was so shook by the disaster that he couldn’t work in NYC anymore, as the images of burning colleagues jumping from their windows was simply too horrifying to face each day on Wall Street. So, he took his family and fled to California to see if it was possible to start any kind of semblance of a new life. I will not forget the shadow of a man who left my office that day.

    Is he celebrating bin Laden’s death? Of course, I have no idea. When one loses so many colleagues and loved ones in such a horrible way, can you really celebrate the death of another? I guess I picture him being brought back to that terrible day when his friends were burned alive, wrestling perhaps with some guilt that he was not there to help his buddies find a way out of the nightmare. Somehow, I doubt he cares much about bin Laden at all.

    And how do I explain to my grandkids that when somebody commits murder it is OK to kill him, his son and wife in the name of justice? In fact, we train our “very best” soldiers to kill with precision in these cases. Yes Isaac, those are our very best killers, highly trained, highly skilled. How do I explain to them also that we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, killing thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians, in the name of justice for the attacks on 9/11/01?

    In the spirit of Thich Nhat Hahn, I had hoped we could have captured Osama bin Laden, and forced to him meet with each family member individually who lost a husband, wife, daughter, son, mom, dad etc., one day at a time, to explain to them his justification for murdering their loved ones. This process would last for many years of course, but I personally do not think he would last a month.

    Thanks for addressing this very important moment in our country’s history Jeff.


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