Well what a to-do! Bin Laden is dead and our newspapers and news bulletins have been dominated with commentary on this extraordinary event. (It is with some perversity that I only wished it had happened on the same day that Bill got hitched to What’s Her Name!)
There is no doubt that Bin Laden was one of the most evil people in recent history. His activities have resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent people. His diabolical work has caused many to be in fear of their lives and our reaction to his terror has constrained our freedom. Yet I can’t find it in me to rejoice in his death.
The hijacking of the aircraft and the subsequent destruction of the twin towers in September 2001 instilled a sense of horror in anyone of normal human sensitivities. It defies belief of most of us how anyone could commit such an atrocity on largely innocent civilians. This deranged human being was the architect of this maleficent act. Therefore I am relieved that he will not be able to replicate it. But I can’t find it in my heart to rejoice in his death.
When this great atrocity was perpetrated we were confronted on our TV screens with the sight of thousands of fundamentalist Muslims cheering in the streets. And I, for one, (and I am sure many of you), were appalled at the sight of other human beings revelling in the suffering and despair of their fellows, whose only distinction from them was that they held another aberration of a dysfunctional religious belief. This week I have seen similar scenes of unbridled triumphalism emanating from Christians. The flaws in the human race know no boundaries of nationality or religion. But nevertheless, I concede, the abominations instigated by fanatical Muslims have been more prevalent than similar atrocities perpetrated by fanatical Christians (at least in this century). And perhaps that is because the Christian communities have not been spurred on by someone as virulent as Osama Bin Laden. There has been no similar move by fundamentalist Christians to (as Rowan Callick aptly put it) “impose through terror a 7th-century style caliphate with a chosen people ruling the world as a theocracy”. Therefore I am pleased his malignant influence has been removed. But nevertheless I can’t rejoice in his death.
I suspect that it was a good thing that the terrorist mastermind was killed by the Americans. If he had been taken captive and held for trial, there would more than likely be hostages taken by his fanatical followers to bargain for his release. So I suspect his execution was a better outcome than his imprisonment. But I can’t take any joy from his death.
Bin Laden was articulate and charismatic – so much so that even those who had never met him were inspired to give up their lives to progress his insane agenda. I have always found it hard to reconcile what our leaders and commentators have said about the suicide bombers. Most refer to their actions as “cowardly acts”. These are not cowardly acts! We reward our citizens with our highest honours for being prepared to risk their lives in defence of our country and our beliefs. Suicide bombers are brave, being prepared to give up their lives for a cause – but they are misguided, because their cause is inimical to humanity and causes suffering and death to innocents. If the removal of Bin Laden’s influence reduces this hurt to humanity, I am pleased. But it will not cause me to rejoice in his death.
Some have pointed out that Bin Laden’s influence has waned. There is no doubt that Al-Qaida’s attack on the twin towers, bombing attacks in Madrid, London and Bali had major impacts. But since then their activities have had lesser effect. Whilst others have made much of Bin Laden’s passing, Brendan O’Neill editor of the British internet magazine, Spiked, maintains that “all that really happened in Pakistan is that a small group of US soldiers shot and killed a sickly man who was the nominal head of a small and increasingly fractured terrorist organization whose political isolation from the Arab masses had only been brilliantly illustrated by the Arab uprising.” Similarly Christopher Hitchens has written, “In the past few years their main military triumphs have been against targets such as Afghan schoolgirls, Shi’ite Muslim civilians and defenceless synagogues in Tunisia and Turkey.” Whilst that might be the case, these are still issues of significance in human terms. That Bin Laden can no longer propagate these atrocities is something to be appreciated. I am glad about that. But I am not overjoyed that his life has been taken away.
Many of you might say my point of view might be different if I had lost a loved one in the Twin Towers atrocity or, perhaps more likely, in the Bali bombing. That may well be true – but I suspect not. Bin Laden’s malevolence results not only from his personal attributes created via his biological history and his social conditioning but it might be contended results from societal failure. If it turns out – and I concede it seems likely to me –that his execution was by and large the best option for removing his deadly influence, then that is clearly a societal failure resulting from an adversarial clash of ideologies and cultures exacerbated by the fear and the pride of the protagonists. A long term resolution to this problem will only occur when those ideologies and those cultures can tolerate each other with understanding and empathy.
The difficulty that arises from Bin Laden’s assassination is that whilst the US and their allies will view this as an act of self-defence, the Islamic fundamentalists will interpret it as a gross attack on them. Above all, they will interpret it (with some justification) as an act of retribution. It seems that neither side has out-grown the “eye for an eye” philosophy of the Old Testament, a platform that we were supposed to have superseded in both Islam and Christianity. And haven’t we seen in spheres as distinctly different as the Israeli – Palestinian conflict and the Protestant – Catholic conflict in Northern Ireland that every act of reprisal engenders reciprocation, creating a perpetual cycle of retribution? Somehow the cycle has to be broken. This is why I find it difficult to celebrate Bin Laden’s death.
All in all, our motives get distorted. When a (perceived) wrong is done to us our first thought is vengeance. Whatever satisfaction that gives us will surely be short-lived. How do we concoct a longer term solution? I don’t see how retribution helps because rather than being seen as a deterrent by the offender it generally spurs a desire for reciprocal action. Even as I write this, Al Qaida is promising to commit atrocities in revenge for their leader’s death. Retribution seems to rest on nothing but the implausible claim that in morality two wrongs make a right: that the evil of suffering added to the evil of immorality as its punishment make a moral good.
Perhaps my concern outlined above regarding Bin Laden’s death can best be traced back to my fundamental belief (see I am a fundamentalist too!) that we All are One. I know I have written a couple of previous blogs on this topic but let me finish with a famous quote from John Donne that expresses the concept more eloquently than I ever could.
“No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.”
And that is why I can take no joy from Bin Laden’s death.