On the death of bin Laden

Here are some apparent facts:

  1. A human being is dead.
  2. The US Government killed Osama bin Laden.
  3. Osama bin Laden is incapable of personally causing any more harm.
  4. A human being who was directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people has been punished for his deeds.

People in the United States and, less so, elsewhere are rejoicing. What are they rejoicing?

I think it depends on the person. It’s far too easy to conclude, though, that everyone who is rejoicing is elated that a human being is dead. A fake quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. has even made its rounds, chastising all the celebrators.

I cannot speak for anyone else, but the source of my elation this week is not in the fact that someone is dead. It’s in the fact that Osama bin Laden is now personally completely powerless. Unfortunately, as some have already pointed out, death does not render a symbol powerless, and bin Laden’s death does not end his influence, any more than Hussein’s death ended his.

Would I be just as happy if bin Laden had been arrested? No, I would be happier, far, far happier. The joy I feel at the removal of bin Laden’s power is muted by two of the other facts above.

I am sad that the situation led to the death of a human being, even sadder at the other deaths that have come about as a result of US retaliation for the attacks of 9/11/01. The deaths will continue. This is a speed bump on a road of gore and carnage. This will not bring peace to the Middle East; there was violence before bin Laden came to power, and there will continue to be violence. The US Government will continue to act as imperialist aggressors. The fringe element of Islam will continue to use violence to try to get rid of us.

I am also concerned when it appears that the US Government is engaged in surgical assassinations. What’s been buried in this news (conveniently, I’m concerned) are the failed attempts on Qaddafi’s life. I have very mixed feelings about such assassinations. On the one hand, if the US Government is going to stop at nothing to get a particular person, I suppose it’s better that they simply target that person rather than creating a bulldozed trough of death (as we did in Iraq). But what gives us the moral right to go around the world deciding who stays in power and who goes in the first place?

I am also cognizant that bin Laden was never proven to have been the Mastermind behind the specific acts of 9/11/01. It is undoubtedly true that thousands have died due to his acts, but whether that includes the Americans who died on that dark day, I don’t know. Because bin Laden was killed rather than arrested, he will never face trial, and the US Government will never have to produce the evidence that they’ve so long resisted releasing. This also gives me great pause, because the foundation of our system of ethics and law in this country is that people are innocent until proven guilty. What bin Laden deserved may well have been a bullet to the head, but what the American people deserved was a fairly and open trial.

Whether this was an assassination or a “fair game” crossfire death of someone violently resisting arrest is a fair point for conjecture, and may never be definitively known; most likely, it was a mix of the two: The soldiers involved were likely predisposed to killing bin Laden, and bin Laden, knowing this, violently resisted. Had bin Laden thrown down his weapon and thrown up his hands, perhaps he would be alive today; but perhaps that’s precisely what he did do.

I am and remain categorically opposed to the Death Penalty. If it is the case that bin Laden really was assassinated, that arrest would have been a viable option, then shame on the US Government, and same on the soldiers involved. The reason for my position on the Death Penalty is not because some people don’t deserve to die, or at least don’t deserve to continue living, it’s because killing another human being diminishes ourselves.

It’s tempting to say that killing another human being (or even merely celebrating that death) makes us no better than the people we kill. I disagree. That implies that there are two moral buckets: “Good people” and “bad people.” Someone who shoots a serial child rapist and murderer in cold blood is still morally better than that dead rapist/murderer; they’re just morally worse than they were before they fired the gun. To the extent that the US Government deliberately orchestrated events to justify killing Osama bin Laden, they’re morally tainted by the act of killing a human being.

As a final thought, I’ve seen comparisons between dancing in the streets of the Middle East in response to 9/11/01 and dancing in the streets of the US in response to bin Laden’s death. Those events are not comparable, regardless of what you think of US Imperialism. I am empathetic to the view that the US Government involves itself excessively in Middle East politics, motivated by a concern to keep the price of oil down. I understand why, in piques of frustration, anger, and desperation, some people would choose violent suicide as a way of retaliation (although I’ve also read accounts that that particular stereotype of suicide bombers is grossly exaggerated, particularly with regards to 9/11). The Presidents of the United States, including Obama and Bush, have signed off on acts of violence which arguably violate international policies on war. No debate there.

However, there is a clear difference between celebrating the death of thousands of innocent civilians whose worst crime, absolute worst crime, was blatant indifference to their government’s imperialism and celebrating the death of someone who consciously and deliberately fueled hatred and death. King’s quote (the real portion of it) refers to light and darkness, and how hate fills the world with darkness. To use that analogy, civilian indifference to US international policy is like someone failing to change a burned-out light bulb, while bin Laden was deliberately running around the house breaking the bulbs.

The world is a better place without Osama bin Laden.

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