Monday, May 2, 2011

Bin Laden is dead, should I be glad?

My first emotion on hearing the news was excitement, eagerness to hear the President confirm it, and a certain amount of "finally." But then I did what I occasionally do, and thought.

I started thinking that a man is dead, gone forever. A human life has been snuffed out. Should I be glad? True, it's a relief that Osama Bin Laden is no longer capable of threatening America or the world. True, he's responsible for thousands of deaths, and much suffering. True, getting him has been a goal of the USA since even before the 9/11 attacks. Still, should I be glad?

There are pragmatic reasons to think it would have been better were he captured alive. Dead, he becomes a martyr. Alive and on trial, he could've been shown as merely human. Also, though a severe long shot, there is a small chance we could've gathered more information from him. If we had captured him alive, it would've been easier to silence those who are already questioning (at least on my Facebook account) whether it was really him. But those are simply "gee, it would've been nice . . . " concerns, and sometimes in military operations, you just have to take the shot.

What of ethical concerns? Because this is where the thought really leads for me: ethically, is it good that someone, even Bin Laden, died? I have held for a long time that life is (for want of a better word) sacred. We have one very brief life, and when it's done, it's done. There is nothing more after this. Frankly, if there were an afterlife, I suspect that killing another would be easier to justify (I'm not going to bother arguing against that link, Greta Christina did a great job already). But, there is no afterlife. No hell for Bin Laden to go to, and no heaven either. All that remains of him is memory. Memory is powerful of course, but he no longer is concerned with that.

There's a saying in Jewish tradition that "To end one life is to destroy the world entire."  To forcibly take another's life destroys something precious, something wonderful. Our lives are our own, and should not be taken from us by another without consent, even less than our property, our freedom, or our innocence. If we kill a criminal, all possibility of them making amends is gone. If we kill a murderer, all possibility of them learning how wrong that action was is gone. Yes, all possibility of further evil perpetrated by that man or woman is gone as well, but the cost is simply not worth it.

Yet, I do not think it is always and everywhere unethical to take a life. One of my high school instructors, a Christian, believed that it was, but when asked said that she would kill to protect her children, even if it meant going to hell. I find myself agreeing with her that I would kill to protect my loved ones, even if it meant going to a hellish prison. Defense of life is a situation where killing can be justified, but should still be avoided whenever possible. If you've an option between a gun or a taser, use the taser. When defending life, you are defending the very thing that is so precious and important, against someone who is seeking to end it. Sometimes, the only possible defense, and therefore the only possible ethical choice, is to kill. But should I be glad that a life is gone?


James Croft had his own thoughts on the matter, and I find myself in agreement with his conclusion: "we might accept that, sometimes, it is necessary for a person to be killed to ensure the welfare of others. But we should never celebrate that decision."

Yet a part of me is glad Bin Laden's dead, and another part is ashamed of that feeling. I'm not sure what to do with that, but there it is.

Anyone else have a thought on this?


  1. I felt something similar when I heard that Charlton Heston died, and that's hardly in the same league. I think it's that distinction between relief that a threat has been lifted and active celebration; the latter disturbs me.

  2. Thanks for commenting, and yes, I can go with relief. Relief is easy. But the more I think about it, the more UNeasy I am with the celebrating in the streets and such.

  3. People are murdered all over the world every moment of every day for the worst and best of reasons. It is not the death of one man, no matter what horrible things he may have orchestrated, that made me feel better so much as it was the weakening of an idea that has wielded frightening power for too many recent years. Osama's continued existence was the cornerstone for a school of thought that condoned fighting hate with hate, torture with torture, violence with violence, and terror with terror. Some think the country has gone too far down that rabbit hole of madness to ever emerge but I still hope that we have it in us to stop letting our pain turn us into that which we hated in the beginning. Whether the celebrating in the streets is mainly other people expressing similar relief at a chance to move on from some part of the darkness that has loomed overhead for so long or just a way to keep the insanity alive only time will tell. Still, I hold onto my hope for us all.