Calvin Freiburger

Justice or Revenge? The Morality of Celebrating Osama bin Laden’s Death

Posted on May 4 2011 7:21 pm
Hailing from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Calvin Freiburger is a political science major at Hillsdale College. He also writes for the Hillsdale Forum and his personal website, Calvin Freiburger Online.
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Most of the nation is still celebrating the elimination of Osama bin Laden, the monster behind one of the worst days in American history. Some are relieved bin Laden can no longer aid the jihadist cause; others take pleasure in knowing the suffering he caused us has been partially repaid.

But at least one voice is having none of it. At the Huffington Post, “specialist in transformational change” (whatever that means) Dr. Pamela Gerloff writes that celebrating bin Laden’s death is mentally unhealthy and geopolitically dangerous:

“Celebrating” the killing of any member of our species–for example, by chanting USA! USA! and singing The Star Spangled Banner outside the White House or jubilantly demonstrating in the streets–is a violation of human dignity. Regardless of the perceived degree of “good” or “evil” in any of us, we are all, each of us, human. To celebrate the killing of a life, any life, is a failure to honor life’s inherent sanctity.

Plenty of people will argue that Osama Bin Laden did not respect the sanctity of others’ lives. To that I would ask, “What relevance does that have to our own actions?” One aspect of being human is our ability to choose our own behavior; more specifically, our capacity to return good for evil, love for hate, dignity for indignity. While Osama Bin Laden was widely considered to be the personification of evil, he was nonetheless a human being. A more peaceable response to his killing would be to mourn the many tragedies that led up to his violent death and the thousands of violent deaths that occurred in the attempt to eliminate him from the face of the Earth; and to feel compassion for anyone who, because of their role in the military or government, American or otherwise, has had to play a role in killing another. This kind of compassion can be cultivated, as practitioners of many different spiritual traditions will attest […]

It is hard not to think that some of the impulse to celebrate “justice being done” may also contain a certain pleasure in revenge–not just “closure” but “getting even.” The world is not safer with Osama Bin Laden’s violent demise (threat levels are going up, not down); evil has not been finally removed from the Earth; the War on Terror goes on–so any celebration must be tempered with the sobering fact that much work still needs to be done to establish peace.

There’s a lot to unpack here, most of it awful. But first, for the sake of fairness and decency one fair point must be acknowledged: If we truly recognize the intrinsic worth of all human life, we have to recognize that even the worst among us have souls, warped and polluted though they may be, and be careful not to think casually of any killing—even just and necessary killing, as bin Laden’s death clearly was. Now, I’d be lying if I told you I haven’t found some satisfaction in the confidence that Osama now knows the afterlife isn’t quite what he expected, but I also have to admit those thoughts don’t live up to the standard my Savior has set for me.

So we shouldn’t take pleasure in exacting bloody vengeance, but there is another aspect to the celebration that is entirely appropriate. As I survey the reactions of friends, acquaintances, and pundits, it seems to me bloodlust is not the primary animating force of their celebration. Justice is. People are celebrating the fact that an act of tremendous evil has been punished, ensuring that bin Laden will never again threaten the United States and sending a clear message to our surviving enemies: hurt us, and we’ll find you, no matter where on earth you go, no matter how long it takes. And when we do, you won’t like what comes next.

Celebrating the destruction and punishment of evil is not only a proper impulse in a free society it’s a necessary one. Quite simply, a society that does not strongly embrace and venerate the punishment of evil is a society that is incapable of survival.

Gerloff’s failure to understand this is bad, but it’s not what makes her piece one of the most disgustingly immoral things I’ve read in recent memory. No, that would be the moral equivalence between America and the jihadists who want us dead. “Good” and “evil” are placed in scare quotes. We’re told a better response would be to “feel compassion” for anyone involved in any military or government who “has had to play a role in killing another,” as if a drone strike on a terrorist hideout and detonating yourself in a crowded subway are equally tragic. And then there’s this:

The truth is that “celebrating justice” when one person is killed–as happens regularly in the gang wars of American cities–only incites further desire for revenge, which, from “the other side’s” viewpoint, is usually called “justice.”

Consider this: If a leader in our country were killed in the manner in which Osama Bin Laden was killed, as “justice” for his acts of aggression in the War on Terror–and supporters of that act were shown proudly chanting their country’s name, singing their national anthem, and demonstrating in the streets–Americans would likely feel more sickened than joyful, wouldn’t you think? The impulse to celebrate a death depends on what side you’re on.

It doesn’t matter how little you think of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, or any American leader. It doesn’t matter how much you disagree with US military operations in Libya, Pakistan, Iraq, or Afghanistan. There is no comparison between any of our leaders or actions and those of al Qaeda, Hamas, or Hezbollah. “The other side” might say their cause is justice and ours is revenge, and some might even believe it. But reality is what it is regardless of “viewpoints.” Those who seek to kill and dominate infidels are the bad guys, and the ones trying to stop them are the good guys.


If the rest of the country were so foolish as to believe that the key to peace with monsters is quashing the celebration of monsters’ deaths, the ensuing suffering would be staggering. However unhealthy the “psychology of revenge” may be, it pales in comparison to the poison that is the neurosis of moral equivalency.

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