Reacting to bin Laden

I have been surprised this week by the strong mix of emotions that I have felt with the killing of Osama bin Laden. From reading the news and blog accounts I know that I am not alone.

Much of the consternation among commentators has been about the celebrations that sprung up on the streets of New York and Washington on the news of Bin Laden’s death. I never wish to celebrate anyone’s death and I do not excuse it, but I was helped to understand this in an article on the nature of revenge in today’s New York Times. As one psychologist said about the outbursts, “Pure existential release.” Revenge is a natural human instinct that is important to help us acknowledge injustice and move us to action. Religious values, such as the Jesus’ call to love your enemies, serve to temper such feelings so we may rationally work for a just response.

The killing of bin Laden by the US clandestine mission brings, for me, a real sense of closure. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 were terrible crimes and they have long cried out for justice for the victims. I pray that the victims and their families may find some peace for themselves in this action. In more normal situations it would have been hoped there could have been a trial with due process. But this is not a normal situation. This has moved beyond a criminal matter to become a war on terrorism. And, unless one is a pacifist, we accept that war leads to death—hopefully only to those who are combatants, and for the purpose of preventing even greater loss. bin Laden’s death satisfies those requirements. I pray that it will lead to less loss of life in the future.

The part of this killing that has provided me with a sense of satisfaction was the efforts of our government to insure that he had a burial in accord with Islamic customs. It is important to show care for the dead, no matter how much we may have condemned what they did in life. There are certainly some political motivations for the burial, but it is still an important statement of our respect for Islam and a model for an appropriate response to any death. How we respond to such deaths is an indication of the state of our civilization.

Death, no matter the person, leads us to a closer examination of our own lives. A violent death such as this may serve to stabilize a feeling of injustice or a perceived violation to our understanding of the world. It may help to restore a sense of order and security. I hope it does not end there. There is so much to be done to find paths to lasting peace in our world. The Rev. Geoffrey Black, president of the UCC, wrote a Call to Prayer in which he points seeks to guide us to look to a more peaceful future. Wrapping up the war in Afghanistan would be one important step.

I pray that in our reflections on the past ten years since the 9/11 attacks we may take hope in the efforts that have been made to build little bridges of peace, and that we may finally find ways to end the wars that have been the sad legacy of that day. I also continue to pray for the victim’s families as they seek to find their paths forward.


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