<STD: Serious Topic Disclaimer>
In the interest of offering content both didactic and accessible, the following Serious Topic will not include proper source support. This means you shouldn’t believe any of it. If you find the discussion compelling, however, I encourage you to pursue a more demonstrable truth.
We’ve had a lot of tragedy this century.
The 9/11 attacks, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more mass shootings than I’d like to count. Most recently, Newtown, Aurora, and Boston have been on our minds.
So I suppose it’s understandable how we tend to react violently to transgressors. But it still irks me. I have very vivid memories of the day Osama Bin Laden was killed. I was in college, and when the news broke I was in the library. By the time I left, crowds had already gathered up and down the lawn. They were waving flags, celebrating, chanting patriotic things, and blanketing the campus with a chorus of “fuck Osama” and “’Murica” and all of that.
It was disgusting to me. It made me feel petty and silly and immature to see my countrymen celebrating a human being’s death so jubilantly. And it was strange to me that I should be so revolted, because I am no pacifist. I am not generally anti-war, nor do I oppose the death penalty—although those are both complex issues, and my views on them are not adequately summarized in one sentence. I thought a bit about why the manifestations bothered me so.
Was it futility? Bin Laden was a shadow in a Pakistani cave, a decade removed from his would-be coup-de-grâce on Western materialism. It’s true that it seemed like a consolation prize—like a “thanks for participating” sticker passed out after the real trophies. Bin Laden was totally successful in his mission—he killed a lot of us, embarrassed us before the world, hit us where it hurt, dragged us into a war of dubious wisdom that created even more death and political strife. A decade later we killed him, as if that made everything worth it. This post isn’t about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but killing Bin Laden had nothing to do with whether they were successful.
Still, it wasn’t just that. On some level, it just makes me sick that anyone would celebrate another’s death. I believe that killing is a necessary part of the human existence, but never would I celebrate it—or, if I did, I would at least acknowledge my own error. Watching those students rejoice, I couldn’t help but ask myself how many of them supported the death penalty, how many of them were vegan, how many of them really felt a personal burden had been lifted? How many were just swept away with the crowd and the cognitive bias of the century?
We were convinced to crystallize all of our fears and anger and hatred in one man, stupidly. It was a man who legitimately harmed our country—more than can be said about, say, the Jews and pre-WWII Germany. But, afraid as I am of reduction ad Hitlerum, I have to draw the comparison. America was just another country whipped into a homicidal frenzy, eager to see a man destroyed out of vengeance.
I don’t know how much of a threat he still posed—perhaps a very real one. I’m not criticizing the decision making that brought him down; handling terrorism aggressively is a good idea. That said, celebrating anyone’s death goes against human civility. I don’t pretend to be an Obama supporter, but the pictures of him running that operation actually ingratiated him to me, irrational as it seems—he seemed austere and serious.
Look at the Boston bombing brothers. At one point, a kid of 19 was pinned in a boat, taking fire, and bleeding half to death. It was at this point that it was proposed he be treated as a hostile combatant and relieved of his rights. Already the masses were clamoring for swift and brutal justice.
I wish there were more room for pity, even for bad guys. We delude ourselves into believing the harm we do to others will heal the harm they do to us; in reality, it often does the opposite. “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind” is one of the more overused and misunderstood platitudes out there, but I think it applies here. It isn’t about condemning reciprocal action; it’s about maintaining the principles we apply casually on a daily basis in the face of adversity. It’s easy, in the wake of some outrageous circumstances, to change the way we think, but that’s the wrong way to do things. It's shoddy, lazy, and dishonest, and it lends itself to the sort of groupthink that can ruin societies.