The Tolling Bell: Do Some Deserve to Die?

Late last night U.S. sources reported that Osama bin Laden had been found and killed. Soon after President Obama made a statement to the nation confirming the news. And immediately the U.S. erupted in celebration.

Outside the White House, citizens gathered to wave American Flags and chant “USA! USA!” At Ground Zero and Times Square people came out in droves, one holding a sign reading “Bin Laden: Ding dong the witch is dead!”, others dancing happy jigs on the sidewalk. Right now as I type people are pressing onto the T in Boston, heading to the Common. Heading to celebrate the death of another human being.

And me? I feel conflicted. I feel relief, excitement, even, if I’m honest, satisfaction. The world is rid of a gruesome figure, and part of me wants to wave a flag with those on Boston Common. But at the same time I feel unease. I see huge crowds celebrating  the death of another, and wonder whether this is an appropriate response.

This leads me to question, as a Humanist, do some people deserve to die? And is it ever right to celebrate the death of another human person?

My conviction as a Humanist is that every person is deserving of dignity and rights. Every person. Humanism and its Aspirations declares that “Humanists are concerned for the well being of all”, and makes no distinction between the wicked and the just, the good and the evil. The Humanist Manifesto II is abundantly clear: “The preciousness and dignity of the individual person is a central humanist value.” So is the first Humanist Manifesto, saying “humanism will affirm life rather than deny it”. My ethical tradition is clear – where possible we must affirm life and seek to promote the wellbeing of all people.

So does my Humanism require me to regret the passing even of a man such as bin Laden?

Lest this sentiment seem outrageous, it has been articulated by others of greater mental gifts than I. John Donne, British poet and priest, wrote in 1623

“No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee….”

So now that the bell tolls for Osama, does it toll for me? Should I listen to the chants of the American crowds and hear instead the peal of my own funeral bells? Does his death diminish me?

It’s hard to see how it could. Here was a man frenzied by an ideology of hatred and death which led to actions no personal or political grievance  can justify. He bore responsibility for thousands of deaths. There is no evidence that he would have stopped plotting the destruction of those he counted as his enemies had he been left at large.

And I have empathy with those who have lost loved ones, either in the terrorist atrocities of 9/11 or in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Part of me wants to join the revelers, waving a Union Jack for all the British soldiers who have died. I can understand how  President Obama can say that bin Laden’s “demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity.”

Yet I do not entirely welcome it. It is too easy to say that it would be better for bin Laden to have been captured alive. Likely this was not an option, and if it were, who knows what challenges mounting a trial would have presented? I do not fault the U.S. forces for taking the shot, instead of risking his escape. But this does not mean I want to celebrate his death.

I can accept, I think, that some people stray so far from morality, inflict so much suffering on other human beings, that their death might be necessary for the protection of others. I can accept, I think, that bin Laden’s actions somehow forfeited his right to full moral consideration. I can accept that he might deserve to die. But I do not accept that this is something to dance and sing about.

Let us remember that this is one event in a long war that has claimed thousands of American lives, and those of countless Afghanis. We cannot responsibly separate today’s events from the context of a war which, whatever our political convictions, has claimed huge numbers of souls. We should take a moment to mourn for them.

The existence of someone like bin Laden is evidence of the lengths human beings are capable of going in their hatred and fear of each other. It is a symbol of humankind’s capacity to deal in atrocities and think them righteous. It is a miserable example of “man’s inhumanity to man“.

And so, however difficult it might be, we must not dehumanize bin Laden. We must remember that whatever else he was, he was a human being, an example of what we are capable of. Despite the celebratory sign, he was not a witch, or a “monster”. We must remember this not for bin Laden’s sake, but our own, for only if we recognize the potential depth of our own depravity can we guard against our basest instincts.

Bin Laden’s killing in the midst of a war marks the end of a vile threat, and we can take grim satisfaction in that. But let’s hold off on the celebration until we have created a world in which people like bin Laden don’t come to exist.

Perhaps that is the only sustainable Humanist position: we might accept that, sometimes, it is necessary for a person to be killed to ensure the welfare of others. But we should never celebrate the necessity of that decision.

Even if some people deserve to die, we should regret killing them.

This is not my usual practice, but here is a disclaimer: Even as I wrote this post my feelings changed. I am not at all sure of my reasoning here. I could be very wrong about this. I post this to start discussion, not to state the Truth of Things. I am willing, as always, to be convinced that I am wrong. And If I’m convinced I’m wrong I’ll post and say so.

About James Croft

James Croft is a Humanist activist and public speaker who has swiftly become one of the best-known new faces in Humanism today. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently studying for his Doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As a leader in training in the Ethical Culture movement – a national movement of Humanist congregations – he is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • LucienBlack

    I had my own thoughts along these lines, but it would be too long for a comment, so I’ll just point to my own blog post:

    In essence, I agree. Although, I now find myself looking at the word “deserve” in your last sentence, and wondering if it can truly be said that anyone “deserves” to die (even Bin Laden), especially in light of my own reasoning on killing. A thought to ponder.

  • Lwaxanna

    Your instincts, James, are faultless. This deserves a wider audience.

  • Gemma

    A friend just posted this on facebook:

    “Often times I have hated in self-defense; if I were stronger I would not have used such a weapon.” -Khalil Gibran

    I think that may sum it up for me.

  • Myra Rubinstein

    I agree. Death should not be celebrated.

  • Serah Blain

    I don’t really even know how to begin thinking about the question of whether or not someone “deserves” to die. I don’t understand how we can adequately determine when it is acceptable to irreversibly end someone’s experience of existence–especially when the consequences of judging wrongly are horrific. But however we look at the question, we will never come up with an honest answer if we dehumanize the lives we are considering. Part of what I find so beautiful and affirming about Humanism is that it insists on recognizing the humanity of every individual in our human family. To dehumanize bin Laden, or anyone else, is to undermine our core values and defeat our vision. There is precious little I would defend about Osama Bin Laden–but I will defend his right to be considered as a human being.

  • Sheldon

    James, you expressed a very Christian sentiment, adherent to Christ’s ideal.

    On a lighter note, perhaps your uneasiness from all the celebratory extolments stems from the fact that you not an American. I may be a rugby fan (and of the UK), but when England won the Cup back in 2003, my excitement was not the same cheerful glee of pride that an English person or a British ex-patriot had.

    The question whether anyone “deserves to die” is an old problem in philosophy concerning ethics which the answer — yes, there is answer, depends upon the philosophical principle adopted. By example from Utilitarian position, an answer is ‘yes’ because greater good comes from Bin Laden’s death than from his continuing to live, already there is greater joy i.e. people cheering in the streets from his death than ever was expressed while he was alive.
    Reframed another way, the claim that ‘Osama Bin Laden is alive is good/bad’ is not some tautological truth that may be derived. Such a claim is a moral issue the truth of which — or rather, justification depends upon some chosen ethics, Nietzschean, Kantian, Christian, or even Aristotelean, take your pick.
    But which ever you choose, be consistent.

    The question I ask is as a Humanist, what ethical schema do you adopt and why?

    From your posted musings, I read something more Christian based, but not like the Fundamentalists who bomb abortion clinics, protest against gay marriage, or who had lynched Black Americans kind of Christians.

    Dehumanization exercise makes hating and attacking another easier; the KKK did not see Black Americans has human, let alone as equals thus made for easier and justified in their lynchings.

    I take issue with the word “regret” in the final sentence because the word implies (a) there existed an alternative solution which was not consciously chosen . . . Uhm . . . perhaps . . . and (b) that . . . (topic too complex to address here).
    Suppose capturing Bin Laden alive were possible and had been done instead. Presumably he would be placed on trial and found guilty. Then arises the question, do you execute him or imprison him for life. There are arguments pro and con for both cases for both practical and religious reasons. The choice made depends upon, once again, which adopted ethical principles.

    What makes for being human: biological contingency or behaviour?
    If the former, then is there a bestowing of prejudicial preference just on the bases of some physical characteristic, no different from genderism or racism? In other words, why give preferential treatment for humans because they are human as opposed to being a virus?
    If the latter, then does some one remain human when they perform inhuman acts?

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I’m not sure I agree that the ideas I’ve presented can be rightly called “Christian”. I certainly see there are Christian thinkers who adhere to similar principles, but so too are there thinkers of many other faith traditions and none, many who predate Christianity, who have expressed such principles.

      Also don’t forget that al-Qaeda attacked Britain too, and we’ve been fighting alongside the USA from the start.

      The question of what makes a human, ethically-speaking, is a challenging one for me. I think essentially I have come to the point where I take promoting human welfare as the very definition of morality, and go from there. This is an extremely complex ethical issue that I’ve given much thought to – perhaps we can discuss it in a later Humanist Community gathering?

      I think Felix Adler summed up my moral position well when he said:

      “The conception of worth, that each person is an end per se, is not a mere abstraction. Our interest in it is not merely academic. Every outcry against the oppression of some people by other people, or against what is morally hideous is the affirmation of the principle that a human being as such is not to be violated. A human being is not to be handled as a tool but is to be respected and revered.”

      Ask me to justify that statement, and you have a long discussion ahead of you…

      • Isabel

        ” I take promoting human welfare as the very definition of morality, and go from there. ”

        /Isabel whistles through her teeth and stamps rhythmically until the whole bleacher shakes/

        That is to say … It sounds like a reasonable starting point to me.

  • Amy

    I’m not saying that I’m not proud to be an American or that I don’t support or respect the military after all they volunteer to fight for each and every US citizen, me included, but I don’t support killing to stop killing. To me it’s like a parent hitting a child to teach the child not to hit someone. Is the message we are trying to send really resonating? Is it clear? Are the people of the US really celebrating freedom, justice, and remembrance or are these public demonstrations something else entirely? Perhaps I can better understand candle vigils, moments of silence, but “patriotic” chants that include swearing, racism and the support of killing another human being something I cannot. I thought this was a war that was fighting for tolerance and understanding not the opposite.

    I agree, wholeheartedly.

  • Isabel

    “only if we recognize the potential depth of our own depravity can we guard against our basest instincts.”

    Something I’ve agreed passionately with since I was old enough to understand the idea.

    I’m curious how your views changed. Your persuasiveness was certainly not impaired, as these comments testify. Do you celebrate this death now? Has Osama lost some of his humanity in your eyes? Did the celebrations seduce your feelings into following the gestalt? Or, by mulling the nature of his actions, did you come to see him as having dehumanized himself?

    I see Cheney as having successfully dehumanized himself. I have considered Bin Laden dead for years, so I’m a little wry-eyed about this story (how many Osama Bin Ladens are there?) but, for all the latter’s misapplied intelligence and gleeful murder of thousands, I think Cheney’s body count is higher. Just because they’re mostly brown & uncounted, doesn’t mean they don’t count.

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      My thoughts are pretty much as I wrote in the article – the process of writing it was extremely helpful in gauging my own opinion. But I am not certain that my thoughts might change further.

      I think perhaps we shouldn’t allow him to dehumanize himself. I think we should remind ourselves constantly of his humanity, in a sense, to remind ourselves also of our own murderous potential.

      I don’t really know, Isabel.

      • Isabel

        That’s good advice and I’ll try.

  • LucienBlack

    I think you added a few paragraphs since I commented last night. Either that, or I was far more tired and out of it then I thought last night.

    On the “deserving death” idea, I still have no answer as to whether anyone ever deserves death. Osama Bin Laden is at least a very good test case for the idea, since if anyone does or has deserved death, he is almost certainly in that number. But is simply causing death enough to earn that consideration? I would think not, as even the one who kills in defense of loved ones would be included then. Is it the number of deaths? The motive behind the deaths? Bin Laden believed he was doing the right thing, as most who have been vilified do. That doesn’t change what they did, or our condemnation, but does it inform the concept of “deserving death” in anyway?

    I guess I’m not being helpful, because I have no clue.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I did add a couple of paragraphs as my thoughts developed, but very soon after I posted. Your post was extremely helpful and thoughtful, and it was part of what spurred some further thoughts.

      • LucienBlack

        Then I’m happy to help.

  • Pingback: Reflections on the Death of Osama bin Laden « TRiG's links

  • Scott Matthews

    This post comes to you from the person in your life who is the most American, Religious Humanist you know.

    Do not feel Bad, Osama Bin Ladin deserved to die. He deserved nothing from you or anyone else, other then the death he recieved. You have every right to feel the way you do. Happy, Sad, fraustrated, upset, conflicted, joyful! All normal for this historic event.

    Your human, he was evil. Dont forget it.

    Come back to Seattle soon!

  • Isabel

    I’m moved and intrigued at how this post prompted yet more thoughts and further questions — deep and sometimes painful questions which transcend time, faith, race, class, IQ, and everything that we think divides us.

    (You have a knack for setting up that environment, James. :-))

    It gives me persistent hope for this species that we keep asking them, all down the ages. We haven’t freed ourselves from our “murderous potential” yet, but we still haven’t stopped trying.

  • andy carpentier

    James: I am largely in synch with the dilemma you pose and where you end up.

    I had two very disparate thoughts in reading this and understanding what was happening across America.

    [I deliberately avoided watching TV over the last hours as I did not want to come face-to-face with what I thought to be an excess of blood lust. I resented the FB postings I received with a picture of Lady Liberty holding the head of OBL. Degrading to Liberty and to me.]

    First, I thought of Jesus’ admonition from Matthew [appropriately King James']:”5:43 Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.5:44 But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; 5:45 That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”

    And then from an admittedly crass TV show “The Borgias” wherein the French king Charles who is downright sobering as he downplays the “glory” of war – how the antagonists slug it out until one is vanguished – neither side the victor. And I thought how our War On Terror has demeaned and diminished us as a people. The viscious cycle of attack and retribution will go on. Charles rebukes the cardinal: “there is no ‘just’ war”.

    Nor is there peace, as well.

    • Isabel

      Andy, I agree with your comment on the War on Terror so deeply it aches. Prego.

  • Laura

    It just makes me sad. Sad that he lived in hatred, sad about the environment that produces such relentless fanaticism, sad that so much bloodshed has taken place. I do believe that he had to die. I think, in fact, that he would rather have it this way. That makes me even more sad. Can’t imagine what it is like to need to harm others to feel a sense of purpose. It’s a mess of anger and desperation all around. I agree that he had to die. Doesn’t mean I have to be happy about it.
    Anyhow, thanks for the fantastic post, James!

  • Paul Creeden

    We will all die. Our deaths all deserved, I suppose, by virtue of our having been born. However, this is a question of personal murder by one (or more) human beings of another. Yes, it is nationalistically celebrated and state-ordered murder. Massacres throughout history would pass that test. The greater question is: Who is entitled to pass the sentence on another to be killed? A killing in direct one-on-one self-defense against potentially deadly aggression may be the only justifiable form of murder. Maybe. My heart goes out to the man who pulled the trigger to kill Bin Laden. I cannot comprehend what having that mission in life has done to his being.