Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Responding to the death of an enemy

Two of my friends posted quotes on their Facebook pages in response to the news of Osama bin Laden's demise. A high school friend quoted Mark Twain:
‎"I've never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure."
Mark Twain

I responded with a thumbs up.

A few hours later, a friend from grad school quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.:
"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Again, I clicked the "Like" button.

These two contradictory statements precisely summarize my own conflicting emotions. When I was a child I had a pen pal who was a prisoner on death row. Many years later, after many denied appeals, he was finally executed. During this time I thought long and hard about my own beliefs on the topic, and ultimately decided that I could not condone the death penalty. It's complicated, I know, but ultimately my decision came down to the possibility of human error in judgment, and the capacity of every human to be reformed, not to mention the sanctity of life. People should be held responsible for their crimes, yes. They should be restrained from committing further crimes, yes. But I felt strongly that the path toward healing comes by way of reconciliation, not reciprocity.

Sam will be the first to point out to me all of the distinctions between the execution of a criminal tried in a court of peers and the killing of an enemy combatant. So don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that the killing of bin Laden is equivalent to administering the death penalty; it's not. And though I don't agree with the death penalty as a policy in the U.S., I'm also not saying that there is never a time to take a human life. There are too many variables to make such a blanket statement. But if I'm to be consistent with my own convictions about how I should respond when wronged, should I not instinctively feel remorse about bin Laden's death? But instead, my first reaction was more akin to Twain's sentiments.

Reflecting further, I realize that this is my first time to be on the side of the victim of a severe crime, finally seeing the perpetrator punished. Like all Americans of a certain age, I will never forget the images of 9/11, the rage and fear and grief they made me feel. Though we weren't all there in person, we were all assaulted that day. So while I understand, and initially joined in, the collective sigh of relief and vague sense of pleasure that he is gone from the earth, I am saddened by this response (and frankly a bit ashamed of some barbaric displays of elation I'm witnessing from others in the media). I still believe in the idea of love driving out hate that was so eloquently expressed by King; my goal is to be able to feel this way too, and behave accordingly.


  1. As a follow-up, I'm aware that it's possible, maybe even likely that King never actually spoke these words. I would like to believe he did (and it makes for a better post), but regardless, they ring true for me.

  2. I'm not even sure those statements are contradictory - I think they actually go very well together and sum up what a lot of people are thinking.

  3. I have witnessed some barbaric displays/posts in the media and from friends. I heard a newscaster say she was full of joy...what? And why so barbaric when we when abided by Islamic law and buried him at sea within 24 hrs.

  4. Thank you, Shannon, for that thoughtful post and the quote by King. King is, of course, approaching the subject from the viewpoint of a follower of Jesus. The Bible teaches us to pray for our enemies and to bless them, rather than to persecute them. It also teaches that the state has the responsibility of punishing the wrongdoer (the individual is prohibited from seeking revenge ("'Vengeance is mine,' says the Lord.") As a follower of Jesus, King could never rejoice that a doer of evil has been killed. Rather, it is a source of sadness that the doer of evil did not come to repentance and seek to make restitution for the evil he had done.

    The action of the United States is complicated because the United States in this instance is not guiltless. If you want to try to put yourself in the shoes of an al-Qaeda sympathizer, a good place to start would be to read THE CONFESSIONS OF AN ECONOMIC HIT MAN. American leaders are adept at creating myths about American values, strategies, and our history. The facts belie these myths.

    What did our killing al-Qaeda's founder accomplish? It aided Obama politically, but it did little, if anything to disrupt al-Qaeda. It certainly sealed bin Laden's reputation as a martyr and it has probably pushed some people into violent struggle on al-Qaeda’s side.

    The U.S. can never win this battle with violence. Violence begets violence, and if we think we can win with violence, let us reflect upon how long it took us, how much it cost us, and how many innocent lives were taken to finally kill this one man. Does this make the United States look strong and victorious? On the contrary, bin Laden's death reminds the world of how impotent the United States is when it comes to fighting people who view it as the Great Satan.

    The only way to win this battle is to stop using economic hit men, seek peace and pursue it, and dismantle the military-industrial complex that perpetuates war. Read Dwight Eisenhower's farewell address to the nation at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Eisenhower%27s_farewell_address

  5. I am totally with you, Shannon. Good post. It's Sharon, by the way. I just don't have one of the profiles that you are supposed to choose from, so I had to put as anonymous.

  6. I have just spent quite some tim reading your blog! I found you from hopping around blogs and am so glad I found you! What a fun adventrue (got to tell you, your food descriptions are great! I love food...too much). Anyway, thanks for sharing your adventure.