I’ve noticed some discussion on the web and in the media about the reaction to Bin Laden’s death, specifically whether it’s morally appropriate to cheer such an event. I think this is a very complex issue that evades a simple response of right or wrong.
Part of this has to do with people’s experiences; a young woman on the News Hour tonight mentioned a friend who said “He (OBL) was the man who stole my childhood.” Noting that most kids in college today were 9-12 years old on 9/11/2001, that event must have had a profound effect on how they experienced their childhood. Perhaps that was a factor in why so many young people cheered the news of his death.
Another issue concerns the perception of Bin Laden. I’ve seen comments about the morality of cheering a human being’s death, even if he’s a Really Bad Guy. But we must recognize that Bin Laden was more than just a human being.
In many ways we relate to the world and things in it symbolically; we don’t see a rose as just a rose, we see it as a symbol of other things that may be less concrete but are still very real for human experience: love, romance, beauty, etc. Our relationship to roses is influenced by our knowledge of this symbolic quality.
In this way, Bin Laden wasn’t just a human being; by his own actions and intentions he had come to be a potent symbol of evil, of the horrors that some humans willfully and perhaps joyfully commit against other human beings. I think it’s possible that some of the cheering we saw Sunday night may not have been a reflection of hatred against Bin Laden as a person, but rather reflected a sense of release – that sometimes evil CAN be fought and defeated. Would it be illogical to cheer such an occurrence? (While the term “evil” can be fraught with misuse and abuse, I think it’s appropriate in cases like 9/11.)
Finally there is the question of our own natures. While we may strive to be good and moral, the fact is we are much more complex than that. Our beliefs, our faith, are more complex than that. I think an interview of Monsignor Albacete, conducted as part of the Frontline episode “Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero,” does a great job in exploring that issue. As Monsignor Albacete says:
From the first moment I looked into that horror on Sept. 11, into that fireball, into that explosion of horror, I knew it. I knew it before anything was said about those who did it or why. I recognized an old companion. I recognized religion. Look, I am a priest for over 30 years. Religion is my life, it’s my vocation, it’s my existence. I’d give my life for it; I hope to have the courage. Therefore, I know it.
And I know, and recognized that day, that the same force, energy, sense, instinct, whatever, passion — because religion can be a passion — the same passion that motivates religious people to do great things is the same one that that day brought all that destruction. When they said that the people who did it did it in the name of God, I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised. It only confirmed what I knew. I recognized it.
I recognized this thirst, this demand for the absolute. Because if you don’t hang on to the unchanging, to the absolute, to that which cannot disappear, you might disappear. I recognized that this thirst for the never-ending, the permanent, the wonders of all things, this intolerance or fear of diversity, that which is different — these are characteristics of religion. And I knew that that force could take you to do great things. But I knew that there was no greater and more destructive force on the surface of this earth than the religious passion.