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Osama bin Laden and the Morality of Celebrating Death

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One year ago, a quiet Sunday evening was transformed by one of the most sensational news stories of the past decade: An elite team of U.S. Navy SEALS had secretly entered Pakistan, stormed an Al Qaeda compound and assassinated Osama bin Laden. A determined-looking President Barack Obama walked briskly up to the camera, coolly briefed the American public, and then strode off down a White House hallway. What followed next was different for every American, but for at least some, it was elation. Celebrating the death of any living creature is fraught with moral considerations, but as the world sees the first year pass since bin Laden's death, it ought not condemn those who choose to celebrate.

On the night in which news of bin Laden's death broke, I hailed a cab to the White House. There, I joined thousands of Washington's twenty-somethings and college students at the president's front gate. Shirtless, tattooed men were climbing street poles and trees to hang American flags. Chants of "The Star-Spangled Banner" echoed as if strategically-positioned boomboxes were blasting it on repeat. At least on the surface, smiles, cheers, and laughs were the troubling response to news that another human being's life had been taken.

Like most of the youth in the crowd, I was still a child when the attacks of September 11th took place. Within days of Al Qaeda's strike, bin Laden had solidified his position as our generation's boogeyman. Over time, his words and continued freedom would stand in defiant, increasingly dissonant contrast to the optimistic, progressive version of American history that our textbooks had described. Nearly 3,000 U.S. citizens had been killed, and as children, we were told that this man was why. Osama bin Laden's death meant that Americans had one less evil to fear in the world. Most of the youth at the White House were not celebrating the death of a human being, but rather a long-awaited return of their belief in American exceptionalism.

It is difficult to think of a recent example of the U.S. so enthusiastically cheering the death of a single individual -- even one who directly or indirectly caused the deaths of large numbers of Americans. Certainly, responses to the deaths of Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milošević or Muammar Gaddafi do not even begin to compare. At its core, the elevated conditions of the crowds at the White House and Ground Zero spoke to the fact that the significance of the event dwarfed any one person. After years of waiting for their government to avenge the deaths of their countrymen and eliminate a threat to their way of life, Americans suddenly snapped out of their national malaise. This rapid awakening of patriotic fervor did not escape The Daily Show's Jon Stewart, who satirized this transformation by showing the U.S. shake off its impotence in the form of a geographically erect State of Florida.

Furthermore, to the American public, which has historically seen clear winners and losers in war, bin Laden's death stood as a rare indication of progress in the U.S.'s otherwise messy, hard-to-measure and seemingly never-ending war on terror. After fighting nearly ten years of war, losing thousands of lives, and spending trillions of dollars, Americans were desperate for something to cheer about. His death may have catalyzed the celebration, but Americans were celebrating the implications of his death, not the dying itself. Americans' rejoicing over bin Laden's death demeaned him as a human being little more than the Athenians' celebration of the Battle of Marathon demeaned the resulting demise of the messenger Pheidippides.

Even if one considers the celebration of an individual's death to be inherently immoral, then the U.S. commits this same sin every time it prays for the safety of its deployed troops. As alluded to in Mark Twain's short tale of "The War Prayer," one cannot pray for victory without implicitly praying for the defeat of one's enemy. As the old man lectures a church congregation in advance of the upcoming war, "Is it one prayer? No, it is two -- one uttered, and the other not... O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead...help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief... "

Ultimately, it follows from Twain's point that if one prays for the security of their countrymen, then they must also pray for the extinguishing of those forces which would threaten them. Insofar as the dismemberment of Al Qaeda has saved the lives of U.S. citizens, the assassination of Osama bin Laden was part of providing that safety. In other words, this May 2, do not so harshly judge those who celebrate bin Laden's death -- their unspoken prayer is for your life.

This post was previously published on The Wagner Review.