Speaking last Friday to cheering soldiers at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, President Obama declared that the past week "has been a reminder of what we're about as a people." It was a remark the president intended as homage to American grit, determination and persistence. Nearly ten years had passed, but we'd finally gotten Osama bin Laden.
It was, in fact, a week in which our nation paused, puffed out its collective chest and took deep satisfaction in one man's demise. The Onion captured the national mood with characteristic precision: "Violent death of human being terrific news for once." Near the foot of page one, below the banner headline announcing bin Laden's killing in the Monday, May 2 New York Times was a photograph of a crowd of mostly young, mostly male, mostly white Americans who'd gathered spontaneously outside the White House to revel in the news -- all smiles and high fives.
The scene outside the White House was reminiscent of a Stanley Cup victory celebration. Or the party outside Stateville Prison in Joliet, Illinois on May 10 seventeen years ago, the night the State of Illinois executed John Wayne Gacy. Horns honked and fists pumped.
Logic and reason carried the day with Governor Pat Quinn and the General Assembly in the debate leading to the abolition of the Illinois death penalty earlier this year. There is a proven risk that an innocent person could be convicted, sentenced to death and executed. There is no proof that the death penalty deters murder. The criminal justice reforms needed to reduce the risk of executing the innocent are expensive and come with no guarantees. Since there is a consensus that executing the innocent is unacceptable, it isn't worth the money that would be needed to reform the death penalty and keep it -- even for use against the likes of Gacy.
In the halls of the State Capitol during that recent debate, there was barely a whisper of this additional truth: every intentional killing of a human being, including state-sponsored execution, is ugly and violent.
The folks who take to the streets to glorify and celebrate the killing demean themselves and the society of which they are a part.
The execution of John Wayne Gacy did nothing to make us safer. Indeed, there is some evidence that murder rates actually increase in the months following a well-publicized execution like Gacy's.
It's debatable whether Bin Laden's death has made us safer. Maureen Dowd's confident pronouncement in last Sunday's New York Times that we deterred future acts of terror through bin Laden's execution was remarkably simplistic. Though bin Laden himself has now been fully deterred, there's no certainty yet that Al Qaeda was weakened or that bin Laden's ghost may not provide a stronger rallying point for extremists than the man himself. Time will tell.
In our world, some killing is necessary. Gacy's wasn't. Bin Laden's may have been a necessary strategic objective in our declared War on Terror. Viewed through this lens, we can admire -- and be grateful for -- the daring brilliance of the plan and the surgical precision with which it was carried out.
But it doesn't require a commitment to radical pacifism to conclude that dancing in the streets in celebration of death -- even the death of those we hate and revile -- ought to prompt some more sober reflection on what we are about as a people.