Should we celebrate Osama’s Death?

So the big news tonight, in case you were living under a rock, is that, in the culmination of an extended operation to locate, identify, and pursue Osama Bin Laden, US special forces have killed him in a compound outside of Islamabad, Pakistan.

There is a lot to be said or discussed about this turn of events, but one in particular is on my mind tonight, and as much as I should be working on some physics right now, I can’t seem to get it out of my head, so I’ve decided to try thinking it out in blog form instead. Which is meant to count as a disclaimer: the following thoughts are still in draft form, but there’s no guarantee that I’ll have time to put them down if I wait until tomorrow when they’re better thought out.

Among some pundits, thinkers, and friends of mine, there’s been a certain level of criticism for the way many Americans, myself included, have reacted to the news of Osama’s death. I should say, I understand where they’re coming from. It should always make us a little uncomfortable to find that we’re celebrating death and killing, no matter how vile the person being killed. There’s no doubt that a world in which no killing was ever needed would be a better one, and the idea of celebrating someone’s death as though it represented some kind of satisfaction seems to miss the point of justice. And then there are the reports that folks are singing “We Are the Champions” at Ground Zero, which seems more appropriate for the aftermath of a Jets Superbowl victory than to mark someone’s assassination.

And yet, while I am in general very far towards the pacifism scale (I don’t support the death penalty in any situation, for example), I don’t believe that people are wrong to react with a sense of elation and happiness at this news. Here are my preliminary thoughts on why.

First, Bin Laden’s killing today was not the same as an execution, not by any stretch of the imagination. Part of what makes me so uncomfortable about capital punishment is that people seem to try to “enjoy it” as though carrying it out somehow improves the world, and I can’t see how it possibly does. The damage has been done; the murderer is behind bars, and they haven’t hurt anyone since. Killing him does not resurrect his victims, and I suspect that any comfort their families are afforded by his execution is hollow at best.

But this is a different scenario than the one which played out today. Osama Bin Laden was continuing to wage an active war on several fronts: against the United States, against many of his own countrymen, and against peaceful, mainstream Islam everywhere. Every day he was on the loose, he was likely planning to cause future bloodshed in America, working to disrupt peace processes in the middle east, and psychologically torturing young men and women into sending themselves to their own deaths. Unlike the hollow, symbolic act of an execution, the killing of a man actively plotting against you is like striking down a foe in the midst of a battle. True, you can and should decry the fact that the battle took place at all. But I don’t believe for a minute that you can fault someone for feeling relief and even joy upon discovering that someone who posed a threat to their lives has been killed. I admit, now that I live near and spend much time inside New York City, I can feel the discomfort of knowing there are active terrorists out there plotting to kill random civilians much more personally, and I don’t like it. I deserve to be able to visit national landmarks and hang out in crowded spaces without having a little paranoid voice in the back of my head telling me that this is just the kind of time and place where a terrorist might strike. And even though it’s a small voice, and mostly an irrational one, it’s still true that I am safer today with Bin Laden dead than I was 24 hours ago. I do not apologize for wanting to celebrate that fact.

Next: the other statement that will be made by those who feel uncomfortable celebrating what happened today will be that justice cannot be served by what amounts to a battlefield killing, and that Bin Laden should have been captured, tried, and then dealt with by a court of law. To a certain extent, I agree with this, as I think many people would. I certainly presume that the orders of the men on the ground were to capture him if possible. But I have to say, while I’m almost always on the side of strictly upholding the rule of law, the killing of Bin Laden today was not the same as uncomfortable way in which terror suspects, many professing their innocence, have been denied due process in places like Guantanamo. Perhaps, in some technical sense, there is a similarity. But broadly and pragmatically, this is not the place to pick that fight. Osama Bin Laden had confessed in front of the whole world to both his past crimes and to his intent to commit more of them in the future. If there ever was a time when someone’s guilt was clear without need for a trial, this was one. Indeed, an attempt at a trial would likely have resorted in an enormous fiasco: Where would it be held? Whose jurisdiction and laws would apply? How could we really ensure the safety of those charged with guarding Bin Laden, or those in the jury, or really anyone in any way connected to the trial? Could we really justify putting their lives at risk in the name of giving due process in this most open-and shut of all cases?

The “war on terror” often looks very much unlike a war, and even when it does, it is often fought on the wrong battle fields, or in places where it is hard to tell whether the enemy is truly present, or who/what the “enemy” even is. But if there is one place where the “war” concept seems to me to apply, it is to Osama Bin Laden himself. As both a figurehead and an organizing officer, he was a general marshaling forces against you and me. He was not simply some former murderer on the run, being pursued so that he could be “brought to justice.” He was a man actively working to do harm to innocent people. Do I wish for a more ideal world where he could have been captured, tried without incident, and locked away forever? Sure. Do I dream of an even more ideal one where none of this even had to be debated? Of course. But do I regret in any way the feeling of security and relief that I get from knowing that he is dead? No. Not at all.

Finally, I don’t think it’s true that these celebrations are really a celebration of one man’s death. They are, it seems to me, primarily the celebration of a stepping stone in a larger, more extensive mission: the eradication of terrorism in the world. And as long as you agree that this is a goal worth pursuing through military means (you might not, I understand that), then I don’t think you can fault us for treating this as a symbolic victory along the way. We should ask ourselves how many times have we seen footage of a revolution someplace, in which a regime is toppled, a leader is killed, and the population responds with wild celebrations. Do we react to these scenes with the same kind of skepticism? Of course not. We recognize that these people are not celebrating deaths, but the completion of a goal, and the taking of a step towards a better world. That deaths were a part of that process is lamentable, but not cause to condemn the celebration. In those cases, we all understand their elation: you are free from your opressors, your overlords, from the ones who seek to keep you in poverty and in servitude and perhaps even seek to eliminate your gender, your race, or your nationality. But how substantially different is what many Americans are feeling today? A sense that we toppled an evil figure whose shadow hung frighteningly and ominously over us, and that we helped send a message to future generations, that the evil tactics of terror and intimidation of innocents cannot stand?

I guess what I’m saying is this: if you want to split hairs about Americans’ motivations in reveling in this news, you can. It’s always uncomfortable, at least to me, to see people cheering at the news that someone was killed, even if it was under the guise of being “brought to justice.” I do not encourage killing as a way to make ourselves feel better about a past tragedy, not ever. It cannot and does not work.

But when an active threat is neutralized, and a man working every day to ruin the lives of not just Americans, but Afghans, Pakistanis, and dozens of other people is killed, are we not allowed a moment of satisfaction? Not because it changes anything about the past, or in any way lessens the sting of the old wounds. But because it means we can be safer, happier, and better able to pursue an agenda of peace in the future. This kind of celebration and happiness does not, to me, carry with it the darkness of a revenge killing. It is the opposite: not a hollow obsession with the life that was lost, but a meaningful recognition of the lives that have in all probability been saved.

It is not perfect. I wish lives never had to be lost in the pursuit of safety and harmony. But we live in an imperfect world where inevitably, they do. I make no apologies for the fact that tonight, I am thrilled that the life which was lost along that way belonged to a self-confessed murdered bent on killing again. There are so many lamentable deaths every day, it is welcome news that for once, one of them may help to save more lives than it cost.

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About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

8 Responses to Should we celebrate Osama’s Death?

  1. Vince says:

    Biggup Colin. Well spoken brethren!

  2. Juliet says:

    I think you’re asking a good question in the right way.

    And I share some of your conclusion. Countries must neutralize threats to the nation, and Bin Laden represented a major threat. So we scored a millitary win, and wins get celebrated. However, unlike you I’m not sure our behavior is advisable. This should, in my opinion, be a quiet and straight-faced celebration.

    The US represents over 50% of NATO-Country military spending. Every time we flex (and celebrate) our military muscle it reminds other cultures of our domination.

    Imagine that China overtakes us as the superpower? We read they’ll overtake us in GDP terms in the next decade or so, what if they spent the same % of it in defense and suddenly had more carriers, fighter jets, special forces etc than we do?

    I think we’d start watching them very carefully, praying that they were benevolent. Things like the accidental killing of the son of a tyrant or the invasion of a foreign country in order to assasinate an enemy would almost certainly make us nervous even if we understood their motivation?

    While gloating may offer some satisfaction, it also makes us look rather medieval if we seem to be specifically celebrating someone being shot through the head. And nobody wants a medieval country to have all the biggest guns.

  3. Kmar says:

    ‘This was a kill operation,’ U.S. national security official says, clarifying no desire to capture Osama bin Laden alive – Reuters

  4. Evan West says:

    Well summarized!

  5. irishman says:

    Well Colin, firstly well done on a clear, fairly concise and objective view.

    I agree with you against the death penalty in ANY case, no matter how it is. Reveling in the death of someone is an inhumane discomforting thing to watch. And if people are rejoicing in the fact that there could be less deaths and ‘terrorism; in the world, then so be it; however I doubt that this is what everyone is celebrating.
    For many this is a dark sense of revenge.

    I also by no means want to undermine the sense of relief and closure on behalf of those who have lost loved ones in 9/11 and since at the peril of Osama Bin Laden.

    I think you have covered most bases in how I view the situation, however, this is where I differ:

    When will people realise that justice and peace does not lie at the end of a barrel?
    Some may be rejoicing and taking comfort, as I said before, in knowing that there will be less deaths in the world due to this, but unfortunately and I don’t mean to rain on anyone’s parade, but this is a romantic, obtusely simplified view of the world and human beings.

    If say for example Barack Obama was assassinated by Al Queda or the like, and their followers were rejoicing in taking down the President of the USA, an icon of contemporary USA, does it simply mean that the people or the military in the USA would take it lying down? I sincerely doubt it, and the same goes for Osama Bin Laden.

    To be honest, what I see happening, and I pray to God I am wrong, is a backlash of retaliation.

    I also am aware of the reaction to what I say being: ”But we can’t be walked all over too. Are we supposed to just take it lying down ourselves? How long must we be passive??”
    Of course I see where these people are coming from, however think about this, IF there are further deaths from the killing of Osama, and a fresh wave of followers for this new ‘martyrdom’ what then? Another war? More bloodshed??

    I think that governments need to stop looking outwards but also inwards.
    IS there something that we are doing to cause these extremists to target us? Why don’t they target somewhere like Portugal? Or Ireland? Or Nigeria? The list goes on. Of course other countries have been targeted by terrorism, but not to the extent of the USA or Britain.

    Certainly a country must defend itself when such attacks like 9-11 occur, but WHY do they occur?
    And if they happen again what can you do different next time?
    I know they are terrorists and governments may refuse to talk to them, but what is it that they want exactly?
    Because ignoring their voice is not the right way either.

    Look, I am no expert, I have a fair amount of interest in politics but I don’t declare that I have any foolproof solution, but to be standing here in the 21st century and watching a developed country celebrate the death of a man, and seeing them believe that terrorism is over is, and I don’t mean to cause offence, is delusional.

    I am not a dreamer or romantic but an optimistic realist.
    Look at Ghandi’s life to see how passivism CAN work…

    I’d love to hear some objective feedback. I am very open, and will respect what you say as long as it is well thought out and not just some aggressive knee jerk reaction to any offence I may have caused.

  6. Toasty says:

    I’d like to point out that Osama’s death has not made the world a safer place for Americans. It has turned him into a martyr, and there will be a long-term sustained effort on the part of the terrorists to spill more American blood in revenge. I believe there will be more attacks on US interests rather than less because of this. It might be advisable for you to keep paying attention to that voice in your head.

    The nature of this beast is, the more you kill it, the more it grows. Osama’s name will be used as a rallying call for revenge, and by the recruiters to make more terrorists.

    If I were the US govt, I’d have had him killed, and kept quiet about it. Celebrating only inflames things. How did you feel when you saw the Palestinians celebrating 9/11? I remember Arafat had the sense to clamp down on that as quickly as he could.

    Somebody on BBC, I can’t remember who, said that dying was the best career move that OBL could have made. He’s old, he’s not directly contributing to attacks, the political will of his movement was waning over the years since 9/11. Getting martyr’d was the best way for Osama to resurrect the battle. The conspiracy-theorist in my head sometimes even wonders if he committed suicide (self-martyr’d) to resurrect the anti-american movement in the world. The realistic voice in my head says “probably not”.

  7. Paul West says:

    I’m surprised to find that I am not alone in feeling no cause for celebration. Most probably have little exposure to the Denver Post’s Ed Quillen, but might want to take a look at his view on the subject:
    http://www.denverpost.com/search/ci_17993550

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