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.

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 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.


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