Osama bin Laden is Dead – How are we to respond?

As you all know by now, U.S. Navy SEALS found and killed Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the September 11th attacks and the “spiritual” leader of Al Queda, on Sunday, May 1st. Shortly after the news of his death was announced, spontaneous street parties formed outside of the White House, complete with college kids drinking beer and chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A.” President Obama stated that “justice has been served” with Osama bin Laden’s death, and this sentiment was echoed in many interviews that I heard on the radio today. Clearly, people around the world feel not only a great sense of relief that this most-wanted terrorist is dead, but also a sense of satisfaction that revenge has finally been done against this man who killed so many innocent people.

So my question to myself, and to all of you, is this: Is it ever appropriate for a Christian to celebrate the death of another, and what is the appropriate response to Osama bin Laden’s death?

To help me in answering this question, I looked to some of the experts. In a brief statement on the morning of May 2nd, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said this:

“Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions to this end…

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 further growth of peace and not of hatred.” (Vatican, May 2, 2011)

In another article published by NPR’s Linton Weeks on May 2nd, a campus minister named Mike Hayes stated that “the celebrations in the streets were [not] our finest moment as Americans, and reminded me much of the anger I felt at seeing Afghans dancing in the streets at the fall of the Towers on that dreaded day. We are called to forgiveness. And that is the only way that we can truly be free. Holding onto our hatred keeps us in slavery to bin Laden’s madness and gives the terrorists continued power over us.”

In the same NPR article, Harvard Professor Christine Korsgaard makes the observation that “if we confuse the desire to defeat an enemy with the desire for retribution against a criminal, we risk forming attitudes that are unjustifiable and ugly – the attitude that our enemy’s death is not merely a means to disabling him, but is in itself a kind of a victory for us, or perhaps even the attitude that our enemy deserves death because he is our enemy…It is important not to confuse the desire for retribution with the desire to defeat an enemy…If we have any feeling of victory or triumph in the case, it should be because we have succeeded in disabling him – not because he is dead” (National Public Radio, May 2, 2011).

In summary, the Christian response to Osama bin Laden’s death should be one of deep personal reflection on one’s own responsibility before God and before men, and a desire for increased peace and reconciliation rather than division and hatred. While we feel a natural sense of relief that Osama bin Laden has finally been disabled, and that he will no longer be able to orchestrate monstrous crimes against humanity, we must never confuse our desire to defeat him with our desire for revenge.

Our President made a tough call as the Commander in Chief, and the decision he made was the one that he felt was in the best interest of the United States of America. I am confident that he, in collaboration with the leaders of our Armed Forces and intelligence agencies, made the most informed decision that he was able to make, and we will never know how many acts of violence may have been prevented because of bin Laden’s death. However, as Americans we must honor those who died on September 11th, 2001 by working for continued peace and true justice in the world. As Mike Hayes said, “the celebrations in the streets were [not] our finest hour” (NPR 5/2/11). We can be relieved and glad that bin Laden has been defeated, but we should not rejoice in a spirit of vengeance over his death. We should, in fact, be praying for his soul. This event should cause us to humble ourselves before God, asking Him how He would have us serve Him and His People, and begging His mercy and forgiveness for all of the times that we have contributed to the evil in this world.

What are your thoughts and reactions on this matter? Let’s have an honest and civil discussion, remembering to be charitable to one another…


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  • AWOL Mommy

    Kat, thank you for this counter-cultural, yet heart-stirringly-true piece about our national reaction to Osama’s death. nnAs an Army wife and has-been Army officer, I wish that we could view this as a successful mission, not a personal vendetta. The mission was a success, troops and assets can now be reallocated to saving and improving lives elsewhere – end of story. The rest is merely show-boating and ugly. I cringed when I heard that the United States Air Force Academy was playing Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” over their P.A. system on May 2. I am fully embracing the sentiments of which you speak, I hope our national reaction will mature as the weeks unfold.

  • Kathleen

    I look to Christ’s words in Matthew 5:44 “But I say this to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” I think relief is understandable, but his death ought not to be met with cheers but seriousness and also prayers for peace.

  • This issue is something that has been occupying my thoughts as well. I wrote a post about it where the general theme, however akwardly I got it across, was not that we should be joyful in a man’s death, but grateful for a military that successfully accomplished a mission that will hopefully bring us closer to peace. nnThe other thing that bothered me about the celebratory crowds, which I didn’t write about in my post, was that they consisted mostly of college students. What do they know of the tragedy that happened 10 years ago, when they were in elementary school, or the sacrifice our service members have made for the last 10 years in order to stop another tragedy from happening? Obviously, some of them may have relatives in the military, or even know people killed on 9/11, but what came across is a bunch of kids looking for a reason to party instead of study for their finals. nn(Full disclosure, AWOL Mommy, I did reference Toby Keith’s song in my post. But then again, I did graduate from that school as well. Coincidence?)

  • Rachael

    I really appreciate this post. I feel like so many people are joyous and celebratory. I’m saddened by this. His death doesn’t make up for 9/11 or the lives we lost with the current conflicts that see no end in sight. I would have much preferred justice to be served through our judicial system and others. However, what is done is done, and reflection is greatly needed. Loving our enemies is very difficult but something that can be attained through the reflection and prayer as we’re called to do.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not sure that those dancing in the streets were doing so in a spirit of vengeance. While I completely agree that we should not be celebrating the death of even this man, I disagree that all those celebrating or chanting U.S.A. were doing so in a spirit of vengeance. Were they rejoicing? Yes. Were some of them full of vengeance? Probably, as we all struggle with some sense of vengeance. But for at least some of those celebrating there was a real sense of relief and a joyful feeling of victory over a very scary enemy. I was overjoyed when I heard the news, but not because of his death. I rejoiced in his capture, and in his inability to threaten any other innocent people. nnAmerican culture is often so full of conflict and division. And yet we can all agree that Osama bin Laden was a threat, and thanks to our military, that threat has been silenced. I rejoice with my neighbors in a successful mission. n

  • JMB

    We lost 11 citizens in our little town, including our neighbor and dear friend, daily communicant and father of four young children. Our neighboring town lost 27 citizens so this capture provides closure, I think, for a lot of people who were personally affected by this. I don’t watch the news, so I didn’t see the coverage of people “dancing in the streets”, but I would think that it is more about the success of the mission, than the killing of Osama. I was in 7th grade when the Carter Administration failed at releasing the captured hostages in Iran. Those were awful times to live through. I think the response was in part a big sigh of relief that the US can still do some things well.

  • I just blogged about this last night b/c I’ve been really struggling with my reaction to the news which did not seem to match the jubilation of much of the nation. The Vatican statement which you quoted helped me a lot – we are never called to rejoice in the death of another because we are to be a pro-life people. This morning I read an interesting commentary in the paper about how many Americans responded to this news as if it were a sports victory, a nailed 3-pointer at the buzzer. But it wasn’t, and even though I think there is a deep desire for unity underneath our very politically-divided appearance as a nation, I pray that we can unify under our desire for true peace and justice in the world, not simple revenge against “the bad guys.” The world is much more complicated than this, and those photos of the crowds rejoicing in Osama’s death made me shudder b/c they reminded me of photos of crowds elsewhere in the world who rejoiced after 9/11. nI appreciate the wisdom and reflection of all those who commented here as well – it is much more refreshing to read than some of the statuses I saw on Facebook after the news broke (yikes!). Btw America magazine had a good reflection on this subject by Fr. James Martin; he brought in JPII which was a great perspective: http://www.americamagazine.org/blog/entry.cfm?blog_id=2&entry_id=4174

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for your perspective here JMB. I agree very much with your sentiments.

  • I’m glad someone mentioned this as the whole question of the “proper Christian response” has been on my mind. Especially because I think the ideal Christian response should be synonymous with the ideal American response, the response of a civilized government and its people. nn Aside from the obvious pride I have for our military, I’m also proud of the government administration deciding not to show the photo, especially amidst protest and others’ wishes to the contrary. As well, I’m proud (for once!) of the media, which is mainly seeming ton focus on celebrating the lives of so many victims. I hope this continues up to the 10th anniversary in September. nn