Osama bin Laden and the Celebration of Death

Simon Smart considers public reaction to the death of an infamous figure

Over the past week, we've witnessed the spectacle of Americans dancing in the streets in response to the news of the death of Osama bin Laden. The Anthem being sung outside the White House, chants of “USA! USA!” among crowds of celebrating New Yorkers and the general sense of jubilation – all of this has been well documented and broadcast across the web. From this distance, it’s not a good look.

There have been occasions in the recent past when we've been appalled at the sight of non-Westerners partying over the death of Americans. It's hard to believe that such scenes as we've seen in the United States following the death of bin Laden wouldn’t have a similarly tawdry and undignified feel if they took place outside of the United States.

It’s easy to see why people would respond with glee at the news out of Pakistan. Bin Laden was responsible for an extraordinary amount of brutal violence. And so a sense of satisfaction that he hadn’t managed totally to get away with his crimes, that some sort of reckoning had caught up with him, is understandable, and fair enough.

There are plenty of people willing to defend the desire for revenge. In her book Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge, Susan Jacoby argues that revenge stems from, “a need to restore ‘something missing’ – a sense of physical and emotional integrity that is shattered by violence.”

For Jacoby, revenge is natural and self-satisfying, and needs to be acknowledged as the legitimate response of the victim. To suggest otherwise is to rob the victim of their dignity. As philosopher and law professor Jeffrey Murphy writes, “I think that most typical, decent, mentally healthy people have a kind of common sense approval of some righteous hatred and revenge.”

But in response to the celebrations following bin Laden's death, a number of commentators have suggested that something more sombre might be appropriate: remembering the dead and the damaged, mourning over a world that is so torn by hatred and injustice – something more along the lines of Obama’s solemn wreath-laying ceremony at Ground Zero last week.

Trudy Govier, in her study on revenge and forgiveness, argues that a campaign for revenge entails necessary self-damage, because it brings the victim to the same level as the offender. To act out revenge is wrong “because we have to indulge and cultivate something evil in ourselves,” she says.

Now, I wouldn’t be the first to quote from Proverbs 24 this week, “Don’t gloat when your enemy falls.” And of course Jesus takes this further, calling people to love their enemies. Not easy to do, admittedly, but he seems to have meant it and expected anyone who follows him to take this seriously. Many of those followers have struggled to know what this means when faced with evil – Bonhoeffer to Martin Luther King Jnr. Both these men anguished over the practicalities of such a hard teaching, but ultimately, refused to give in to hate.

Christopher Hitchens says loving enemies is a dangerous and absurd notion, but he’s missing the fact that talk of love for enemies does not remove justice from the picture. It remains right and proper to bring people to account for wrongdoing, and certainly Osama bin Laden deserved to be brought to justice.

Westerners often boast about the way that, whatever natural desire for revenge we might harbour, we bring people to trial and have them answer for their crimes in a fair hearing where evidence can be assessed and a fitting sentence handed down once guilt has been established. This commitment to public and transparent justice is what prevents a slide into barbarism.

Nonetheless, bin Laden wasn’t brought to trial. He was hunted down and killed. It is not surprising that questions have been emerging about how seriously we can take the claim that Navy SEALs were ordered to bring him in alive if possible.

N. T. Wright has written, “a passion for justice, or at least a sense that things ought to be sorted out, is simply part of being human and living in the world.” Events like the dramatic, almost Hollywood-like, raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound tap into our desire to see justice done, and, probably, our knowledge that it is rarely achieved.

Christianity paints a picture of a God that takes justice seriously

We have heard President Obama talk about justice having been served, and there certainly has been a vulgar, “Eye for an eye,” Old Testament variety of justice handed down. But is this really cause for celebration?

Any sort of justice achieved here is so partial and inadequate – one life for 3000 people killed on 11 September 2001 and the scores of others in earlier attacks around the world. Bin Laden might have gotten what he deserved, but surely his punishment wasn’t enough. What sort of justice is it really for those who lost their lives, and for those who loved them?

It’s a reminder that the only real hope for justice comes from the anticipation of the judgment of God. Christianity paints a picture of a God that takes justice seriously, and promises that someday, it will come. If that’s true, it offers the best – and only – hope that victims of such brutal acts of cruelty and violence will ever see justice served.

Talking about the judgement of God is not fashionable even in churches these days, and it’s rarely mentioned anywhere else other than by comedians and satirists. Perhaps this is because we all intuitively know that any judgment of the world includes judgment for each of us. When it comes to our own situation, we’d rather invoke mercy than judgment.

The Christian message has a lot to say to those who face great injustice, and many have taken comfort in a “God who sees.” For those who accept such a premise, a contemplation of the grave injustices of life, of which terrorist attacks are just one, reveals divine judgment to be good news, and a reason for hopefulness in the face of daily events that trample on fairness and leave the innocent as victims.

Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity