The news of Osama bin Laden’s death was greeted here at Harvard with shouts of, “USA! USA!”, joyous screams, waving of flags, and wielding of Fourth of July sparklers. People gathered around their televisions and computers to hear President Obama’s obituary of sorts for one of the world’s most hated men. Emails were sent over house lists, and students abandoned their work to celebrate the late-night announcement of America’s revenge killing of the “evil genius” behind the September 11 attacks.
While I felt the palpable sense of relief–the briefly-comforting thought that perhaps the world had become just a little safer–the no-holds-barred celebration of death left something to be desired.
Among my friends’ Facebook status updates following Obama’s announcement (many of which echoed the same sentiments that could be heard in the dorms and around campus), only one friend posted the following: “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thy heart be glad when he stumbleth…” Sticking out like a sore thumb among the many posts celebrating the Red, White, and Blue’s victory over evil, his posting of Proverbs 24:17 was a good reminder of the many reasons why it is inappropriate to be celebrating anyone’s death with sparklers and outpouring of national pride. However, he left out the most important part of the verse –“…or the Lord will disapprove/and turn his wrath away from [your enemy]”–and I find that an even more sobering reminder that it is ungodly to celebrate victory over an enemy in the way we did on Sunday night.
Osama bin Laden’s death brings to mind the questions of forgiveness presented by Simon Wiesenthal in The Sunflower. (If you haven’t read it, it’s a fantastic book.) Far from a fictional experiment in ethics, Simon Wiesenthal relates in The Sunflower his encounter with a dying Nazi guard who asks for his forgiveness. The Nazi guard has a nurse call Simon, who was cleaning at the time alongside his fellow prisoners at a makeshift hospital (as I recall), to his bedside. The Nazi guard confesses to him all of his sins (the most serious one being complicit in locking the entire Jewish population of a village in a house and then setting it on fire), and then asks for Simon’s absolution. The sense one gets is that the guard is looking for absolution from any Jew before departing for the world beyond, and Simon just happened to be an “available” one, a proxy who could forgive in the place of the originally wronged group. The story ends on a cliffhanger–should Simon have forgiven the guard or not?
With Osama bin Laden’s death, we find ourselves in a similar situation. However, instead of addressing the serious moral questions that are presented by this rather unique situation–as Simon Wiesenthal does–we are instead celebrating a murder with July Fourth festivities. Where we should be probing ourselves as to whether we would offer bin Laden absolution for his heinous acts, we are instead glorifying further violence in the name of justice (or, really, revenge). Perhaps in bin Laden’s case, his murder is violence to end further violence, but celebrations of good ol’ American pride still seem somehow misplaced in otherwise somber circumstances.
So, instead of continuing on my admittedly self-righteous rant against excessive use and display of sparklers and American flags on Harvard’s campus, I intend to pose far more difficult questions here: now that he is dead, could you find it in your heart to forgive Osama bin Laden? Would you have forgiven him in life? Can he be forgiven at all? Does the right of bestowing absolution fall on the shoulders of the victims of his anti-American plots? More broadly, where, if anywhere, do you see the limits of human forgiveness?
In closing, I want to say that I do not intend in any way to defend Osama bin Laden by writing this piece–he is responsible for the deaths of thousands, and I certainly confess to the sentiment that he receive the full force of God’s judgment for his crimes against humanity. It is a relief to have him out of the picture, though he is admittedly only one part of the larger machine that has made our world a scary place in which to live. My thoughts and prayers are also with the September 11 victims’ families–I can imagine that while revenge is sweet, news of the killing also opens afresh the wounds made on that fateful day.
However, I still maintain my point that death in any form should not be greeted with the gluttonous celebration that the news of bin Laden’s death brought. Instead, bin Laden’s death should have been a sobering reminder of not only of the many lives that were lost to his anti-American plans, but also of the work that remains to be done before we can call the world a “safe place.” bin Laden’s case is also one more chance to explore what it means to be Christian–specifically, how far are you willing to push the “limits” of forgiveness?