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Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden & our humanity

President Obama announces the
death of Osama bin Laden the
night of May 1, 2011.
After hearing of the death of Osama bin Laden last night, I felt I would be remiss not to say something of the occasion here. This, given that the subject of my writing is so often on ethical and philosophic matters that certainly intersect with the issues surrounding this whole event.

Since my central theme at The Humanist Contemplative is generally about personal life practices, the most relevant point here concerns the notion of taking glee in the death of another human being. At first, we might be tempted to say that Osama bin Laden excluded himself from humanity by his actions, but that logic only works within the paradigm of ethics to which I do not subscribe. If I were to see ethics as a top-down rule system whereby we must behave a certain way in order to be part of a social contract with others who also behave, then that logic might make sense - but that view of ethics is mistaken.

Rather, the reason we should be concerned about taking glee in the death of another has nothing to do with any external matter, and has nothing to do with whether or not Osama bin Laden deserves it. The reason we seek to cultivate a virtuous character, including compassion for all beings, is because it is healthy for us and suitable to our best nature. The result of such habits is greater capacity for equanimity and true happiness in life. It's not about him, it's about us.

It should be obvious to everyone that fighting will go on, and there will be many more Osama bin Ladens to come; such people are nothing new in history, and have never been uncommon. It should be even more obvious that none of the deaths caused by this person, or which happened in the long hunt for him, will be reversed. But justice is also a virtue, as is defending the innocent, and we can be thankful that he will not be leading any more acts of terrorism. We can be thankful for the bravery, commitment, and ability of those who fight and sacrifice to protect us and civilization. We can also take solace in whatever degree of consolation this event may have for the families of his victims, even if there are varied degrees to which that consolation is based upon sound philosophy.

At the very least, however, let us not slip into the temptation to revel in the death itself, hoping that he suffered just before passing, or treating the matter flippantly or humorously, or with gloating. Regardless of what our foe deserved, our revelry in such base things harms ourselves - harms our own humanity and empathy, and that will have wider effects on ourselves and our community than intended. This is why we no longer drag murderers through the streets or hang them in public exhibitions - because of the kind of people that makes us.

Let us consider the cost of this act and remember that, in war, there are no winners; always, peace is preferable. Even the most victorious wars are failures to have prevented the conditions that led to them. War always has costs that leave none of us coming out ahead. They cost us lives, fortunes, and perhaps most importantly, they cost us that version of ourselves and our lives that could have been. I've heard it claimed that Osama bin Laden caused the war in Afghanistan, but the war was our choice. We should remember that no one has the power to make our country go to war but ourselves. If that was a proper choice, and if the killing or capture of bin Laden was proper, then let us own it because it is important to remember and reflect upon what is in our control and what is not.

We can take this time to be thankful and solemn; regretful that we found ourselves killers in order to do what we believe was necessary. Times such as these are always sacred, even if the subject of them is not. If we simply refrain from wallowing in vengeful revelry then we will have done much to help ourselves, as individuals and as a people. If we want to take even more advanced steps, we can take this time to reflect on clever things we can do to make more profound changes to the world that effect the underlying conditions for terrorism and war. And, in the most challenging of empathic tasks, we can even think of the tragedy that a person wasted their gifts of leadership, status, and charisma on such harmful ends. To have orchestrated such an act as 9/11 and his other attacks, and then evaded the world for almost a decade required great skill. How much fortunate we would have been had he chosen to apply that skill toward noble causes? It is for this reason, among others, that even if his death were rightful the entire matter is a tragedy worthy of solemnity.

Here we stand over the corpse of yet another human being. Although it required brave and noble sacrifice, and although our responses may have been the best we could muster, this recurring result can be neither our best, nor the summit of our hope. We must bow our heads, return to humility and compassion, and commit ourselves again to wider solutions - we can do even better.

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  1. I've been feeling this way myself. That war is never productive and it takes away our humanity, and that killing a person for revenge, whether for right or wrong, should not be an occasion for celebration. We should all be sad that we (as a society) could not figure a more noble way to solve this and similar problems.

  2. Thanks for the comments and for reading Tina :)