Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden

All day I've been sorting through my reaction to the news last night that President Obama had followed through on one of his campaign promises: To capture, and if need be, kill, Osama bin Laden.

I will cop to some moments of light-hearted triumphalism on Twitter in the immediate aftermath of last night's news. They are moments that, in a more sober frame of mind now, I would not have indulged in had I the opportunity to take them back.

I will cop, too, to the fact that some part of me felt a thrill of pride at the efficiency and dispatch of the military people who carried out the mission successfully. And yes, I also felt a certain smug superiority on the President's behalf, thinking how he was doing the serious work of helping to plan this mission even as he had to swat away idiocy about his birth certificate and assorted other distractions from inside and outside the Beltway.

I was proud of the solemnity of President Obama's brief speech on the events. I have seen some comments suggesting that having killed bin Laden without a trial violates our sense of justice, and I have found it easy -- too easy -- to wave away such objections. "You don't understand," I scoff back at the screen. "They would have taken him alive, but there was a firefight. So his death was unavoidable!"

I understood the glee and frat-party cheering in front of the White House by college students about the same age as my older son. I still remember the day he came home from 5th grade on September 11, 2001, with a note from his teacher explaining that the kids had not been told what had happened that awful morning, that it was thought better for them to hear the news from their parents.

But by that point last evening, I found the cheers and glee and chants of "U-S-A!" unseemly at best. And today, as friends responded in various quarters with a quotation from an apparently a possibly invented quotation attributed to Martin Luther King Jr.* about grieving the loss of lives but not cheering the death of an enemy, I found myself nodding in assent, and quietly acknowledging my own moral discomfort.

A superbly grounded young friend of our family who is spending this college semester in the Middle East posted on her own blog a nuanced and compassionate response, which I commend to wider attention. And at Deep River, I identified, too, with Anna Snoeyenbos's pricked conscience. My own sister, QuakerStateMom, spoke on her Facebook page deeply from her heart:

Am I relieved that Osama Bin Laden is no more? Yes. Am I sobered that our President played a role? Yes. Is it justice and closure? Not really. Was it inevitable? Probably. Do I rejoice? No. I have felt sickened since hearing the cheers... This is a time to soberly call on God's injustice: Mercy and Love.

God's injustice. That is no typo. It is a turn of phrase coined to counter the traditional justice of an eye for an eye, replacing it with a radical message of love.

She posted that not long after I had posted on Facebook a link to Eboo Patel's essay at the Beacon Press website, in which he tells of a friend who has joined the Navy SEALS (the same outfit who executed the mission to get bin Laden): “It is guys with guns that end wars, Eboo,” his friend told him. I felt Patel's essay grappled with the deep moral ambiguity of this moment.

I am not a pacifist. I do see a rough justice in the events of the last 24 hours, and I reluctantly believe that we continue to need a trained military to protect our land and our people. I respect those who have been called to service in that capacity, including, most recently, the son of a UU friend.

And I am also aware of the misuse to which military might has too often been put, even as I want to believe that other uses of it have been for a greater good in protecting the vulnerable in far away places as well as here at home. I wish that we could rise to a level at which military power was not needed, but I just don't have the faith that will be possible in my lifetime.

I think back, as well, to Sunday morning, hours before this news broke. At the UU church I attend, the sermon was preached by a pulpit guest, a local Buddhist priest who is an old friend of our congregation. One of the things he said was that everyone has a Buddha nature -- "even Donald Trump." Or even Osama bin Laden.

I believe that. Or at least I want to. Living it is another matter.

But while I have not yet grown enough to embrace pacifism myself, I believe we desperately need pacifists. They are a voice of conscience in our society and in our world. We ignore their restraining admonition at our moral peril.

And I recall, again, my favorite scene from The American President.

*Moments after posting this, I saw Will's latest post and learned of the apparently fictional provenance of the King quote. Accuracy is important to me, but I do share Will's sense that embedded in the fiction, there is a larger truth.

Further update: Reading further through the comments to the Atlantic item, many people claim that almost the same quote is demonstrably attributable to King. But right now I'm not seeing it. I do see another quote that is as good and seems well sourced; it happens to be the title of the blog entry from our friend to which I linked above.

Final, probably unnecessary, update: OK, what appears to be the case is that a false quote was inadvertently grafted on to a real one.


  1. Very good post, DSD. While I didn't follow that same trajectory of moving from initial exultation ultimately to my more sober approach, I appreciate the degree to which initial reactions may naturally escape the direction of our inner moral compass. Elsewhere, I wrote:

    Unitarian Universalist congregations covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We affirm, then, the inherent worth and dignity even of Osama bin Laden. Despite what he had done or what might have been an appropriate punishment, he was a human being. We are called on to respond to even the apparently most irredeemable person with compassion. And that can be really hard sometimes. Like now. Which makes it more rather than less important.

    We feel what we feel on first hearing the news. We are human and need to have compassion for ourselves too in our conditioned and visceral immediate responses. But it is good to aim ourselves back in the direction of the guiding principles of our lives, which sometimes oppose those initial reactions, guiding us toward our better self.

  2. Wow! Quaker State Mom, hey? I LOVE it... I've been looking for a moniker for my stuff... thanks, and also for your thoughts here. LOVE, QSM

  3. My initial reaction was disbelief, mostly because the "War on Terror" became a "war for oil" and it often seemed hard to believe that we were still in it after Al Quaeda.

    My second reaction was a sigh of relief. Kind of like the sort you breathe when a terminally ill die, only in this case the illness was evil and I did not like the person at all.

    I was uncomfortable with the celebration. It reaffirmed the role of death in our culture as a solution. I don't know. The whole thing was a recognition that the world is a rough place, and it seemed to highlight that bigger picture to me. Enough so that there was no room to celebrate amidst the reminder of what a bitter thing this "War on Terror" has been for civilians, American Soldiers, and our federal budget.

  4. Wow, I'm flattered to be included in your post. Thanks! :)

    And I still love that clip.

  5. Christine, just exactly when did it become a "war for oil"? We did not then, nor do we now, get any oil from Afghanistan. 80% of our imported oil comes from Mexico and Canada; and Saudi Arabia accounts for nearly all the rest. Gee, you'd think if we were fighting for oil, the price of oil would have gone down by now- it's triple what it was before the wars. How is that a war for oil?

  6. Thanks for your honesty, DSD. As an avowed pacifist, I often wonder if I'm just really unrealistic and naive. I do know I'd make a lousy national leader. Ah well. Great post!

  7. :"You don't understand," I scoff back at the screen. "They would have taken him alive, but there was a firefight. So his death was unavoidable!"

    But now the screen scoffs back at you with suggestions that there was no resistance to the Navy Seals raid worthy of the description "firefight", and even alleged eye witness testimony from one of Osama bin Laden's daughters to the effect that Osama bin Laden was captured alive and subsequently executed by the Seals. . .

    Now what?

    Didn't somebody once say that Truth is the first casualty in war?

  8. Robin, I don't deny for a minute that the latest disclosure puts the events in a different light than when I wrote this, and makes them even more morally discomforting than I already found them by the time I wrote this post several days ago.


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