Imagine that some righteous German, a man very much like Bonhoeffer, had managed to kill Adolf Hitler a few years earlier than he actually died, and thus prevented the death of millions of soldiers and innocents. Would that have been cause for celebration?
I am beginning a periodic series called With Distinction, in which I will make conceptual distinctions that can, I think, help folks navigate issues under debate in the public square right now. Please subscribe if you want to follow along. I want to take up the controversy that has erupted yesterday and today over whether it is wrong to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. No sooner had the news spread that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Abbottobad, Pakistan — or, really, no sooner had a bunch of hollering young people gathered outside the White House and Ground Zero and Harvard Yard (and doubtless many more places besides) to celebrate — than we began to hear a religious-political parallel to the NFL’s “Excessive Celebration” rule. See Kevin Eckstrom at the Religious News Service for background.
The debate does not break down neatly on partisan lines. Many of the young folks in DC and New York City and Cambridge, as one might expect, were of the liberal persuasion. Some held pro-Obama posters. Those who condemned the celebrations were both (a) liberals and (b) Christians, including some conservative Christians like Joe Carter at First Things. Many (though not Joe) likened these celebrations to the celebrations one could see in Tehran or Palestine when the towers fell on 9/11.
In this first installment, I want to respond to an equivalency I’ve heard a handful of times today:
“The celebrations over the death of bin Laden were just like when terrorist sympathizers celebrated the 9/11 atrocity.”
Although this may sound like the attitude of a sophisticated world citizen, it is actually moral obtuseness on a staggering scale. Let’s set forth some of the more important distinctions:
- To celebrate 9/11 is to celebrate the wanton mass-murder of nearly 3000 innocent men, women and children. To celebrate 5/2 is to celebrate the death of a single individual, and precisely the individual who was most responsible for the wanton mass-murder of nearly 3000 innocent men, women and children. There is a world of a difference between celebrating an atrocity and celebrating the death of the person who committed the atrocity. Some will say: You think it was just to kill bin Laden, but bin Laden thought it was just to kill 3000 Americans. To which we must respond: That may be so, but bin Laden was absolutely wrong in that belief. What bin Laden believed does not particularly matter; what he did was objectively and horrifically wrong.
- The 5/2 killing was authorized by an authority that is democratically elected and ordained by God to bear the sword of law and justice. The 9/11 atrocity was carried out by a band of mad zealots who took upon themselves the right to determine the fate of 3000 ordinary citizens.
- The 9/11 killing was calculated to kill as many citizens as possible, whereas the 5/2 mission aimed (at the cost of considerably more risk for the American soldiers) to minimize collateral damage.
- Osama bin Laden could have surrendered in the midst of this operation, or at any time since 9/11, and gone before a court, or at least a military commission. He determined his own fate. I understand that bin Laden may not have been armed when he was shot; we are still learning the details. But on many occasions after 9/11 he could have given up the fight and surrendered. By contrast, the victims of the 9/11 attack were unarmed, they were not combatants, and they had no opportunity to appeal for justice.
- 9/11 was an attack upon a state and the opening of war. It was an attempt to destroy a nation, perhaps a civilization, and it was clear that many deaths of soldiers and citizens would follow. 5/2 removed a threat to peaceful civilizations, and over the long term it likely means fewer deaths for soldiers and civilians. 9/11 made the world more dangerous; 5/2 made the world safer. Some acts of violence are actually creative. It is unfortunate but true that taking the life of a person like Osama bin Laden actually makes the world a better place.
Unless we are going to abandon entirely our ability to make moral distinctions, or just to affirm the moral values that are affirmed in scripture, then we must be able to assert that killing 3000 innocent men, women and children is wrong and is the deepest possible perversion of justice. It is not a matter of perspective. To be clear, I have not yet said that celebrating bin Laden’s death was right. It’s more complex than that. But celebrating the 9/11 attacks, and celebrating the death of the individual most responsible for those attacks, are not remotely identical.
In the second installment, tomorrow, I’ll address another parallel that’s being suggested: “People keep saying that Osama got what he deserved. But God didn’t give us what we deserve, did he?” In the third installment, also tomorrow, I’ll ask the overarching question: Is it wrong to celebrate bin Laden’s death? Or what is permissible to celebrate here, and what is wrong to celebrate? Please subscribe to read the rest. I intend to ramp up the blog and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.