Osama bin Laden is dead. That is a good thing, and no one with any degree of moral sanity could feel differently. But does it follow that it is right to rejoice in his death and openly celebrate it? Among the thronging crowds outside the White House and Ground Zero, on college campuses and city streets across the country, the answer was a resounding yes. And in the statements of America’s leading public figures, the coverage and commentary of its mainstream media, the same sentiments of joy and happiness were echoed. But the feeling is not unanimous. A statement released by the Vatican reflects the feelings of many uncomfortable with Sunday night’s festive atmosphere: “In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.”
Similar sentiments have been heard from other religious and community leaders, on editorial pages and in the blogosphere and across social-networking sites. Even for those who do choose to celebrate, there may be twinges of uncertainty and ambivalence at the prospect of rejoicing in someone’s death. There is a reason, after all, that such celebration is not a common occurrence. Not in American culture, at least. Of course there is a culture in which the celebration of death is not only common, but paramount: the culture of suicidal mass murder that is the very core of Osama bin Laden’s ideology.
Is America’s joyful reaction then a sign that we have strayed toward darkness? Were the crowds of chanting, hooting, dancing youth in Washington and New York actually America’s equivalent of the so-called angry Arab Street, which, egged on by the ideological compatriots of bin Laden, burn American flags, behead effigies of our leaders, and chant “Death to America”?
Absolutely not. In fact, the surface similarities serve only to highlight just how opposite are their meanings and motivations. The celebrations across America did not glorify death. In fact, they weren’t really about death at all. The crowds didn’t lynch effigies of bin Laden; they didn’t burn Korans or trample the flags of Muslim nations; they didn’t raise armed soldiers on their shoulders or shoot rifles into the air; they didn’t chant for vengeance or death to other nations, peoples, or religions. No, these crowds of all races and creeds came together and raised American flags, sang patriotic songs, drank and made merry, embraced and shook one another’s hand. They did not glorify death, but rather affirmed life — their own lives and the life of their country at its moment of great victory over an enemy dedicated to bringing death to its shores.
That enemy was not just Osama bin Laden the man. It was the real, operational threat he posed to the life of every single American citizen around the world. And it was the organization, the mission, and the very ideology of terror that he represented and of which he had willfully and masterfully made himself the ultimate symbol during his decades-long career. The moral confusion about the issue has come about because the end to all three of these different conceptions of the bin Laden enemy — the man, the threat, the symbol — occurred simultaneously rather than separately, as they did, for instance, in the case of America’s last encounter with a larger-than-life evil: Saddam Hussein.
Saddam’s symbolic power over Iraq ended with the taking of his capital and the toppling of the statues that proclaimed his glory; the threat he posed as a military and insurgent leader came to an end with his capture; and finally his trial and execution ended his life. To revel at Saddam’s hanging would have crossed the line, taking an unseemly glee at the death of an individual human being during what should be a somber act of justice. However, to rejoice at his capture, and consequently the end of the threat he posed to the people of Iraq and the world, was wholly justified. And the same was true of celebrating the iconic toppling of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad. It stood as the symbol of his power. When it fell, so too did Saddam’s legend and all that he and his regime had stood for.
On the other hand, in the operation that brought down bin Laden, the man, the threat, and the symbol all came to swift and simultaneous ends. Bin Laden designed his terror networks and command structures specifically to withstand and elude the conventional military might of the United States, retaining his ability to threaten American security even in hiding. And he built up his legend to withstand conventional assault as well: He was the ascetic holy man, the romantic warrior of the mountains, unable to be found, unable to be stopped, an everlasting inspiration for the ideology he espoused. That legend was his statue — one that could not be destroyed by U.S. forces even as they invaded Afghanistan, ejected the Taliban, foiled terrorist plots, and killed al-Qaeda henchmen. But when American Special Forces finally found the un-findable, killed the un-killable, and showed him to be nothing more than a feeble old man hiding in luxury behind bodyguards and human shields, that legend was destroyed and the symbolic statue that was Osama bin Laden came toppling down.
It was the demise of Osama bin Laden the threat and the symbol that America so joyously celebrated. The death of the man was merely a vehicle to that end. To believe otherwise is to believe that these celebrations would not have occurred had bin Laden been captured alive. And to believe that these celebrations would have been morally acceptable in the case of his capture but not in the case of his death implies that the American people would have a moral obligation to actively mourn the man and confer upon him in death a dignity and honor that we never would have given him in life. Perhaps the saints among us have such infinite generosity of spirit as to bestow such loving-kindness upon a mass murderer of innocents, but it certainly does not make one a sinner to withhold it. To rejoice at the defeat of this purveyor of mass death is not only natural, it is right.
— Daniel Krauthammer is a writer in Los Angeles. He holds a master’s degree in financial economics from Oxford University.