The death or defeat of an enemy brings on a difficult moral conundrum: how to resolve our baser instincts or feelings of having achieved "justice" for a wrong with the principles of our religious and ethical traditions. Beacon Broadside asked several of our authors for their responses to the death of Osama bin Laden, and what they feel is required of them by their respective faiths. Today, we have the answers of Eboo Patel, Susan Campbell, and Dan McKanan. Tomorrow, we will post responses from Rev. Marilyn Sewell, Christopher Stedman, and Jay Michaelson. (UPDATE: read part 2 here.)
Eboo Patel is the author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. He is founder and Executive Director of the Interfaith Youth Core, an international nonprofit building the interfaith youth movement. He was appointed by President Obama to the Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and serves on the Religious Advisory Committee of the Council on Foreign Relations. Read his blog, the Faith Divide, at the Washington Post.
I read about the assassination of Osama bin Laden as a Muslim with a strong Niebhurian streak. This is to say: we have to be clear-eyed in the recognition of evil, we have to put a stop to it if we have the ability and we have to seek peace in multiple creative ways. Niebhur believed this with regards to America's battle against Nazism, the Prophet did this with regards to the Quraysh tribe of Mecca, who were intent on destroying the fledgling Muslim community.
As has been said about Bonhoeffer, the Christian pacifist who plotted to assassinate Hitler: when you see a crazy man driving a car into a group of children, you have to stop the man.
America did that when it came to Hitler, Milosovic, and now bin Laden. In this case, it happened with targeted precision such that very few others perished in the actual operation. There is little doubt there will be more life (meaning, literally, fewer people being killed) in the future as result of this death.
Read Eboo Patel's post After bin Laden’s Death, a Fist, a Heart and a Guitar.
Susan Campbell is the author of Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl. Her writing has been recognized by the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors; National Women's Political Caucus; the Sunday Magazine Editors Association, and the Connecticut chapter of Society of Professional Journalists. She was also a member of the Hartford Courant's 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning team for breaking news. Read her blog at courant.com.
Bin Laden had, by all accounts, moved to the periphery, and we've been mesmerized by the developments in our Arab spring, where countless citizens were taking to the streets in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Syria, in Yemen, to say that bin Laden was precisely the kind of leader they don't want.
And then we shot him.
Jesus talked about vengeance when He tweaked the notion of taking an eye for an eye. He told followers to match their enemies' evil with prayer and love. The most unthinkable evil (bin Laden) calls us to love.
And that's immeasurably hard, according respect to someone we just don't respect, giving fairness and decency to someone who's responsible for the death of so many.
But that, nevertheless, is the rule. I think those crowds celebrating bin Laden's death outside the White House that night were clinging to the idea that his death would somehow balance the scales. It hasn't and it won't. Killing -- and burying him at sea -- stole our opportunity to bring him to trial, and let him defend himself -- with complete transparency in our judicial system, not a military tribunal. It robbed from us an opportunity to reaffirm that these are our values -- and to remind the world that we are bigger than a terrorist act. By treating bin Laden far better than he ever thought to treat those he killed on 9/11, we could have told the world that even our most despised enemy can expect fairness and decency. We could have told everyone that we are bigger than that.
Or, rather, I wish we were.
Author photo by Marc Yves Regis.
Dan McKanan is the author of Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition. He is the Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School.
The tenets of Unitarian Universalism do not require me to respond in any specific way to the death of an enemy. Instead, Unitarian Universalism—as would be the case for most other faiths—offers me a rich array of resources for developing an authentic individual response. These resources include the Unitarian Universalist Principles—which are commonly affirmed by Unitarian Universalist congregations but not doctrinally binding on individual Unitarian Universalists—as well as the collective stories of those who have preceded us in the faith.
Two of the Principles shape my own response to the death of Osama bin Laden, as well as the deaths of enemies in general. The first principle, which affirms “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” suggests that my response to the killing of an enemy should be one of prophetic protest. “Not in my name!” I say to all those who celebrate bin Laden’s death as retribution for the murders he perpetrated on September 11. If all people, those who kill and those who are killed, have inherent dignity, then mourning and reconciliation are better responses to violence than retaliation.
The question, of course, is not specifically about the killing of enemies but more broadly about the death of enemies. What would my response be if bin Laden had died of natural causes at the end of a long life? In that case, I think, the appropriate response would be simple mourning. Indeed, in one sense the death of an enemy is more an occasion for lamentation than the death of a beloved grandparent. My thinking here is shaped by the seventh Unitarian Universalist principle, “respect for the interdependent web of existence.” If all life is interwoven, then every enmity is a rip in the shared web—and the death of an enemy means we have lost our best opportunity to weave the broken threads back together. We often use the phrase “celebration of life” to describe the funerals of our friends, and when those friends have lived full lives those funerals often have a truly celebratory feel. That is as it should be. But even if bin Laden had lived to be a hundred, his death would have been an occasion for sackcloth and ashes if he had remained unrepentant, and thus unreconciled with all those he harmed.
In reaching beyond the UU principles toward the shared stories of faith, I turn especially toward the story of Jesus, because I identify as a UU Christian, just as other Unitarian Universalists may claim Jewish, Buddhist, pagan, or humanist identities. Like other Christians, I find in Jesus’ story reason to hope that death does not have the last word. Some would express this hope in dogmatic claims about resurrection and eternal life; I prefer to speak more tentatively about the experiences of Jesus and his friends. In the face of the death-dealing powers of empire, Jesus lived a full, rich life. Even after the empire killed him, his friends experienced him as still alive in their circle. When they gathered to break bread and tell stories, they felt he was there with them. Curiously, Christians have seldom reflected on what this experience might teach us about the death of our enemies.
I have no way of knowing for sure, but I suspect that some of Osama bin Laden’s disciples and admirers are currently having an experience not unlike that of Jesus’ disciples between Easter and Pentecost. In the midst of their mourning, they may have felt bin Laden’s spirit still moving among them, still inspiring fervent love for their faith and fervent hate for those of us they regard as enemies. Many of us may regard this analogy between bin Laden and Jesus as monstrous. But perhaps what remains alive of bin Laden’s spirit is not so much his hate as his fervent faith. In his own life, that fervor was terribly twisted; as it is carried by his followers, it still has the potential to be untwisted. If death does not have the last word, our mourning of bin Laden’s death should lead us to redoubled efforts to reconcile with his friends.
The people of the United States, of course, have ample opportunities to pursue such reconciliation. Many of bin Laden’s most devoted followers remain imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. (Many who never had much to do with him are also held there, but here I want to focus on those who are truly enemies—those who committed horrible violence out of twisted love for bin Laden or for Islam.) For ten years we have treated these traumatized and idealistic young people as if they were not part of the interdependent web, as if their suffering could not hurt us, as if they had no gifts to share with the world. Bin Laden’s death can be a time for us to open our ears to their voices and our hearts to their truth. I am not suggesting that we “forgive” them without talking to them, but simply that we start treating them as human beings rather than enemy combatants. Some of them may be more than ready for reconciliation. Others may not—but even for those, a bit of kindness may open up a long path toward repentance.
As I write these words, I am conscious that many of us may feel more visceral enmity toward those who have harmed us personally, or even toward our political rivals, than we do toward bin Laden. It is easy for me to preach about what the U.S. should do in Guantanamo; much harder to pursue genuine reconciliation with my own most intimate enemies. When I mourn bin Laden’s death, I mourn those enmities as well. And, since all life is interwoven, it is likely that reconciliation with those intimate enemies will create more chances for reconciliation with bin Laden and his friends.