Justice and Vengeance

When I heard Osama bin Laden had been killed my reaction was “finally.”

He was personally responsible for the deaths of thousands of people and he had the will and the means continue killing unless he was forcibly stopped. It was absolutely necessary to constrain him, and if he refused to be captured then killing him was necessary and right. I’m glad he’s dead, and I’m glad this country had the ability to insure he will never kill again, even though it took far longer and cost far more than I expected it would.

At the same time, I am troubled by the crowds celebrating his death in the streets. 9/11 hasn’t been undone. The wars aren’t over. Osama bin Laden will never terrorize anyone ever again, but he wasn’t the only terrorist in the world.

The people celebrating in the streets – most of the ones I saw were young and male – weren’t celebrating victory. Nor were they celebrating justice. They were celebrating vengeance.

Vengeance is a dangerous, addictive brew. In precisely the right measure, it can remove current dangers, deter future threats, and give victims a sense of righteous satisfaction even when restoration is impossible. But if the measure is off ever so slightly, it can start or perpetuate a bloodthirsty feud lasting years, generations, or even centuries.

Today I’ve seen several people repeating this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

I thank those whose dedication and bravery made this possible. They did what was necessary. I’m glad bin Laden is gone.

But I won’t celebrate his death.

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  • Anonymous

    You may be right that the young people dancing in the streets last night were celebrating vengence rather than justice. But perhaps not. They were young; most of them would have been only 9 or 10 years old at the time of the Sept 11 attacks. For most of them, as one blogger pointed out, Osama Bin Laden was the face of terrorism. Perhaps they feel that the bogeyman is dead and they can feel safe. Perhaps they feel that good has triumphed over evil.

    I grant you, the sight of young men celebrating a man's death was disquieting. But they don't have the perspective that comes with age and experience. In their black-and-white, video game world, the good guys just won; what's not to celebrate? I'm more concerned about what messages they will be hearing from our political and spiritual leaders in the coming days.

  • Turns out the MLK quote circulating the internet yesterday wasn't all MLK. The last three lines are from King – the first line was added by either Jessica Dovey or Penn Jillette.


    Regardless of their origin, all four lines reflect my feelings on this matter.