Monday, May 02, 2011


I wasn't going to do this, at all; comment on the death of Osama bin Laden, I mean. But my work here is largely reactive, and when I read this:

So, let us mute our celebrations. Let any satisfaction be grim and grounded in the foundation of justice for all who have suffered at bin Laden's bloody hands. And also justice for crimes against God -- for using God as an instrument of terror and and promoting distrust between peoples of different religions and nations. Let us put bin Laden's body in the ground, and in doing so bury his disastrous and blasphemous religious legacy.

Ultimately, judgment is not ours to make. But I believe in a just God and I believe that Osama Bin Laden, for all the talk of rewards in heaven, will not be enjoying his meeting with the God of Creation.
And then this:

Judaism stands alone as a world religion in its commandment to hate evil. Exhortations to hate all manner of evil abound in the Bible and God declares His detestation of those who visit cruelty on His children. Psalm 97 is emphatic: "You who love G-d must hate evil." Proverbs 8 declares, "The fear of the Lord is to hate evil." Amos 5 demands, "Hate the evil and love the good." And Isaiah 5 warns, "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil." And concerning the wicked King David declares unequivocally, "I have hated them with a perfect hatred. They are become enemies to me." (Psalm 139) Hatred is a valid emotion, the appropriate moral response, to the human encounter with inhuman cruelty. Mass murderers most elicit our deepest hatred and contempt.

On the other hand, the Bible also says that we are not to celebrate our enemy's demise. We do not dance over the body of a murderer like Osama bin Laden. Indeed, at the Passover Seder we Jews, upon mentioning the Ten Plagues, poor wine out of our glasses ten separate times to demonstrate that we will not raise a glass to the suffering of the Egyptians, even though they were engaged in genocide. Likewise, after the Red Sea split and drowned the Egyptians, Moses and the Jewish people sang 'The Song of the Sea.' Yet, the Talmud says that G-d himself rebuked the Israelites: 'My creatures are drowning in the sea, yet you have now decided to sing about it?'
First, I don't equate death with justice. An eye for an eye not only leaves the whole world blind, it is not even remotely "justice." But there are other reasons I'm neither dancing in the streets nor feeling any sense of relief at this news:

PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him. And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that. The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingraffed into that body, whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me; all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another; as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.

There was a contention as far as a suit (in which, piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled) which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest. If we understand aright the dignity of this bell, that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours, by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is. The bell doth toll for him, that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute, that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God. Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises? But who takes off his eye from a comet, when that breaks out? who bends not his ear to any bell, which upon any occasion rings? But who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors. Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it. No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction. If a man carry treasure in bullion or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels. Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it. Another may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out, and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another's danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.
If no human is an island, then even the death of bin Laden diminishes me. Perhaps it would have been better had he never been born, but who among us can say the same is not true for us? Perhaps my sins outweigh my virtues? How am I to be sure?

I heard bin Laden denounced as a mass murderer today, and I thought about the distinction between a mass murderer and a head of state: some are equally guilty of as many deaths, if not more, yet they are justified. Some, like Qadaffi, are not. But then, who is guilty, and who is innocent, and whose life is worthy of existence, and who is only worthy of death? It is better that mass murderers had never been born, but who are the mass murderers? Definitions seem to differ.

Perhaps Donne would say bin Laden, not being "ingraffed" into the church catholic and universal, was not part of the main for whom the bell tolls. That is too fine a distinction for me. If I'm going to mourn the deaths of people on 9/11, I'm going to regret the celebration of the death of anyone involved in conducting that crime, too. Death is not justice, whether carried out by the state, or by an evil individual intent on creating his own pan-national state. Which brings me back to the quote I started with, and would counter with another quote, from "V" in the movie of the same name: "Ideas," he told his captive Natalie Portman, "are bulletproof."

And the fact is, they are. Even bad ideas; perhaps especially bad ideas. I would like to be able to bury bin Laden's disastrous and blasphemous religious legacy. But the only way to do that is to hold to my religious legacy. I cannot defeat ideas. I cannot bury ideas. I cannot kill ideas. I can only be as true to my beliefs as possible. And those beliefs don't allow me to take satisfaction in anyone's death.


  1. Anonymous6:39 AM

    Having spent a lot of time Sunday morning thinking about the victims of Ronald Reagan's and George H.W. Bush's policy in Central America (and elsewhere) in association with the beatification of JPII, the point about heads of state who routinely use terrorism as an economic and military policy is so true.

    I was disgusted to see the celebrations of something that should have been taken as a grim, preventative killing.

    The country is nothing like a Christian country, it is thoroughly non-Christian. Marilynne Robinson remarks on the distinctly different culture that dominated when and where Calvinism was a living force with the one we have now. I don't know if it's peculiar to Calvinist culture and it's certainly possible for Calvinists to go off the rail but there's something undeniably there.

    Anthony McCarthy

  2. Totally right on. And thanks for the Donne; I hadn't read that in quite a long time.