Osama bin Laden — a man whose purpose in life was to inflict death and suffering on as many innocent people as possible — was finally killed, and much of the Western world’s religious — and, of course, secular liberal — elite has expressed moral objections to those who celebrated this death.
Pastor Brian McLaren was named one of Time magazine’s “25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America” in 2005. This is how he reacted to television images of young Americans chanting “USA! USA!” the night bin Laden’s death was announced: “Joyfully celebrating the killing of a killer who joyfully celebrated killing carries an irony that I hope will not be lost on us. Are we learning anything, or simply spinning harder in the cycle of violence?”
CNN reported this reaction by an Episcopal priest, Danielle Tumminio, whose Long Island neighborhood lost scores of people in the 9/11 attacks:
When she saw images of Americans celebrating, “My first reaction was, ‘I wish I was with them,’ ‘My second reaction was, ‘This is disgusting. We shouldn’t be celebrating the death of anybody.’ It felt gross.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, reacted to the killing of bin Laden in this way: “I think the killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling; it doesn’t look as if justice is seen to be done.”
Likewise many rabbis have objected to celebrating the death of one of history’s great Jew-haters.
In the New Jersey Jewish Standard, Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, a prominent rabbi in the Conservative (not conservative) denomination of Judaism, eloquently wrote of his gratitude to both Presidents Bush and Obama for the killing of bin Laden, blessed the Navy SEALS, and blessed America. “But,” he then wrote, “even with all of those feelings, I cannot celebrate a death. It does not feel right. It does not feel Jewish. When I saw hundreds of young people chanting and cheering in front of the White House, at Times Square and with Ground Zero in the background last evening before the President addressed the nation, I had a hard time differentiating between us and them.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice-president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, wrote in the Washington Post that “Judaism [finds] the celebration of a person’s death, even if he is guilty of a heinous crime, as immoral.”
Many Reform rabbis have expressed similar sentiments.
On the other hand, nearly all “fundamentalist” Christian and Jewish clergy wrote of the permissibility, even goodness of celebrating bin Laden’s death. As Orthodox Rabbi Tzvi Freeman wrote on the Chabad website Ask the Rabbi,“Someone who is not celebrating at this time is apparently not so concerned by the presence of evil upon our lovely planet.” And as Chuck Colson wrote in the Washington Post, “The death of bin Laden is being rightly celebrated by the Western world, and indeed by Christians.”
The Christian and Jewish clergy who objected to celebration of bin Laden’s death cited the Bible — and in the Jewish instances, the ancient rabbis.
Nearly all cited the Book of Proverbs: “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice, and when he stumbles, let your heart not exult.”
And the rabbis all cited the famous rabbinic legend from the Talmud: “When the Egyptians were drowning in the Sea of Reeds, the angels wanted to sing. But God said to them, ‘The work of my hands is drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?’”
On the other hand, the Book of Proverbs also states, “When the wicked perish, there is joyful song.” And the Talmud also states, “When the wicked perish from the world, good comes to the world.”
So what is one to make of these seemingly contradictory sentiments?
They are not in fact contradictory.
God may chastise angels for singing at the drowning of the Egyptian army. But God does not chastise Moses and the Children of Israel for singing at the Egyptians’ drowning. People are not angels, and they not expected to be.
Second, it is indeed inappropriate to celebrate the fall of one’s personal enemy; it is quite another not to celebrate the fall of evil individuals. Therefore, the two Proverbs citations are not contradictory. One proverb is about personal enemies, the other is about evil individuals. The vast majority of our personal enemies — from a difficult boss to a betraying friend — are not necessarily evil people. Therefore we should not exult at their downfall. And the vast majority of the truly evil are not our personal enemies. Bin Laden was not my personal enemy; he harmed neither me nor anyone I knew. But he was the enemy of all that is good on earth.
It seems to me that if one does not celebrate the death of a truly evil person, one is not celebrating the triumph of good over evil. I do not see how one can honestly say, “I celebrate that bin Laden can no longer murder men, women, and children, but I do not celebrate his death.”
The British historian Andrew Roberts, whose history of World War II was published last week, has summed up the situation well:
My countrymen’s reactions to the death of Osama bin Laden have made me doubt my pride in being British. The foul outpouring of sneering anti-Americanism, legalistic quibbling, and concern for the supposed human rights of our modern Hitler have left me squirming in embarrassment and apology before my American friends. . . . Britons utterly refuse to obey the natural instincts of the free-born to celebrate the death of a tyrant. . . . When the Mets-Phillies baseball game erupted into cheers on hearing the wonderful news, or the crowds chanted “USA! USA!” outside the White House, they were manifesting the finest emotional responses of a great people.
As I believe there is an afterlife, I believe that those rabbis and others who think it immoral or un-Jewish or un-Christian to celebrate bin Laden’s death may one day have to confront a Jew named Arie Hassenberg, a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau. After one of the Auschwitz sub-camps, Monowitz, was bombed by the Allies, Hassenberg’s reaction (as quoted by Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander) was: “To see a killed German; that was why we enjoyed the bombing.”
Was Hassenberg’s reaction morally wrong or “un-Jewish” — or “un-Christian”? I don’t think so.
Celebrating the death of bin Laden is not only moral. It is a religious and moral imperative.
— Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and columnist. He may be contacted through his website,dennisprager.com.