The God Squad: Osama bin Laden's death raises some moral, spiritual questions

Question: The world recently witnessed a strange juxtaposition of historical events:

First, Pope John Paul II was exhumed and beatified. Within a few hours, U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden, then deep-sixed his body from the deck of the USS Carl Vinson. One man was honored for performing a miracle and the other dispatched for committing an abomination.

According to news reports, bin Laden's body was first cleansed according to Islamic custom, then "prepared religious remarks" were read before his remains were dropped into the sea. Near-saints and saints certainly merit our prayers, but what about the monsters among us? — F., via e-mail from California

Answer: About the beatification of Pope John Paul II, I am overjoyed. About the death of bin Laden, I'm joyed, but not exactly overjoyed.

Since the death of bin Laden, many readers have written to question me about whether or not he should have been given a proper Muslim funeral. Many have also been troubled by the rejoicing at his death. I, too, have doubted my own instincts in the last few days.

The first issue that will help us sort things out is the spiritual distinction between a murderer and a murderer's corpse. The main obligation we have to a mass murderer is to stop him, which often means killing him, since mass murderers generally don't show up at the local police station slapping their foreheads and saying, "I am so sorry! What was I thinking?"

Killing such a criminal is an act of justice, not revenge, and unless your religious or philosophical inclinations are pacifist, it is an act of morally justified self-defense, "One who sheds the blood of man, by man will his blood be shed, for in the image of God made He man." (Genesis 9:6).

However, a corpse is not a man. A corpse is the shell of a person. A corpse is not capable of any act of evil, so a corpse must be treated with respect. It cannot be desecrated and it must be disposed of in accordance with religious tradition if the person had a religion.

What was done with bin Laden's corpse was a proper acknowledgment of the difference between the living and the dead. It also should have served as a reminder that Osama bin Laden's life did not have to turn out the way it did.

He was not born to be a terrorist; he chose to be a terrorist. He was not born without regard for innocent life; he chose to have no regard for innocent life. His dignified funeral reminds us that a life of radical evil is not fated.

We are born pure and we die pure. What happens in between is up to us.

As to the issue of the wild rejoicing in many quarters at bin Laden's death, we must look carefully at those who are rejoicing.

The families of those who died on 9/11 and in all the other terrorist attacks bin Laden planned and executed are not rejoicing. The pain of their loss can't be salved by his death. Their grief work goes on undiminished by his death.

And as we remember bin Laden's passing, let us not forget their living. However, some level of rejoicing is not only proper but actually necessary to maintain our moral equilibrium.

The biblical Exodus from Egypt ends with one of the few song/poems in the Bible, the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18). This joyous song of rejoicing was a natural response to making it out of Egypt alive. Rabbinic stories modify this joy by teaching that God was not pleased at the angel's joy over the miracle of the Exodus because it was purchased at the cost of many dead Egyptians also made in the image of God.

To this day, we dip out 10 drops of wine at the Passover meal to symbolically represent the lessening of our joy in the face of the Egyptian suffering during the 10 plagues.

So on one hand, we have the Song of the Sea, and on the other hand, we have the 10 drops of wine. How do we find a balance? My inclination now is to join those singing the Song of the Sea.

I am thrilled that bin Laden is dead. I rejoice at his death because he deserved to die, and because he can no longer plan the death of other innocents. I'm also overjoyed at his death because in the War on Terror in which every victory seems so morally complex and compromised, we now at least have one unalloyed, morally pure victory.

Such victories remind us that radical evil is real but also that radical evil will not prevail. We can be killed, but we cannot be occupied. We can be tormented, but we cannot be defeated. Knowing this is a rejoicing strength.

Centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Sextus Empiricus wrote: "The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine."

What this means is that justice can be delayed but it cannot be denied. Knowing this produces a sober, restrained, mature joy.

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