This morning I drifted in and out of groggy sleep… you know the sort, when you’ve set the alarm with the best of intentions but don’t actually have to get up right away and a few more minutes sleep seem the better option. I heard someone on the radio speaking of a death, of rejoicing in the streets, and thought, “Oh, that’ll be Osama bin Laden, then” before rolling over, too somnolent to have any strong opinion. So it was no real surprise to me later to find Twitter all a-tweet with the news.
It may be just the peer selectiion effect, of course, but the overwhelming impression I got was of righteous dismay at reactions to the news. Choice verses from Proverbs were being quoted, as well as one 9/11 survivor who was just saddened to see yet another person killed. Then, of course, there were the worthy objections to someone, even a terrorist, being killed without a trial — though others rightly questioned whether a fair trial would have been possible. And of course there were the pragmatic voices, pointing out that the result of vengeance, of making a martyr of a charismatic leader, can only be further bloodshed as the cycle of violence continues.
All of these are entirely correct, of course.
Participation in tit-for-tat wars is almost never a good idea. Osama bin Laden may well have been an extremist who doesn’t represent the views of the vast majority of Muslims, but there will still be extremists who are upset and angered by his death. I can’t say that makes me feel any safer, in London.
A fair trial may well have been difficult to ensure, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been attempted. Justice and vengeance are not the same thing. Was it truly impossible to capture this man? One argument I saw said that if he had been captured and detained, there would have been countless hostages taken in order to demand his release. But keeping in mind the pragmatists, aren’t we all now hostage to those who would retaliate?
Prooftexting is rarely helpful, but the point so many people tried to make today — that Osama bin Laden was a human being and it is wrong to rejoice in his violent death — is one I agree with. I don’t really mind whether you couch this in theological terms, stating that every creature is a beloved child of God, made in God’s image and therefore worthy of love and respect, or whether less theist principles about the dignity and worth of human beings or the senselessness of violence are more agreeable to you. If you were saddened, disgusted, frustrated or dismayed at the triumphant celebrations of killing, rest assured that you were not alone. I was unsurprised, but certainly disappointed. Humanity should be able to do better than this.
It is seductively easy to talk online with my peers and sigh and tut about people’s reactions, though. “What is the world coming to?” we ask, as if we have never cheered at another’s loss or our own gain. It takes little effort to disapprove of the lack of any attempt at a trial, fair or not. It is not difficult to chime in with my own doubts about whether the lack of this one person really makes the world a safer place.
None of that is enough, though. Peace will not be achieved by spending a day or a week criticising the sorts of decisions most of us hope or pray we never have to make. Justice will not be served by focusing on the end result of a systemic culture of competition where might is taken as right. Those people whose raucous glee so upsets us will not become more compassionate as a result of our condemnation, however righteous we might feel about it.
It is not enough to sigh and shake our heads and go back to life as usual. “Life as usual” is part of the problem. “Life as usual” got us where we are. Life as usual means nothing will change, for us or for those we eagerly criticise or all too readily fear.
People hurt one another because they feel threatened. People are vulnerable to extremist ideologies because they feel threatened. Wherever people do not have enough to eat or drink, wherever people are denied access to medical care, wherever people struggle to have even their basic needs met, there will be strife, warfare, and suffering. And all that need happen for suffering and evil to exist is for good people to do nothing. We are all interconnected and our daily actions affect six billion other people (and counting). These problems are systemic and we are part of the system, like it or not. It’s up to us to change it.
Instead of continuing with life as usual, we need to take positive steps toward creating a better world. A culture of peace will take root where there is trust and cooperation. A culture of justice will grow when we honestly examine our own actions and choose fairness over giving ourselves some advantage. A culture of compassion will thrive when we treat one another with loving kindness despite the risks, despite the costs.
Let’s make “life as usual” something that we can all live with.