The passing of the late and thoroughly unlamented Osama bin Laden presents some really interesting philosophical and moral issues, particularly for someone who purports to think rationally. As I put some thoughts together, I’m thinking that if a discussion of Dead Osama does not defy rational discussion, it certainly gives it a workout. I’ll try anyway.
My first impression is that I do regret that only one American got to shoot the son of a bitch, and it wasn’t me. As I’ve talked to a number of folks today, that seems to be a fairly common opinion.
So what does that mean? Is that mere macho bullshit? Silly posturing? After all, I think I would remember if I’ve ever shot anybody, and I can’t bring any such occasion to mind. So perhaps it’s all a lot of hot air. Perhaps.
But it still sincere. God bless those who live simple lives and happy lives and uncomplicated lives, spared from the stench of pure evil. Even if you are fortunate enough to lead such a life (and I do sincerely mean that it’s fortunate), it’s still a fact that there is genuine evil in the world. It is not an unacceptable leap of logic for me then to conclude that there are some people, some few people, who simply need to be removed from this corporeal existence. (There’s a post on capital punishment in the making – looking ahead, I generally oppose it on thoroughly practical grounds.)
And so, my opinion about the preferred fate of a few evildoers and particularly about Dead Osama is inconsistent with my concept of justice, at least as it involves more garden-variety violence. Moreover, my opinions are not simply inconsistent, but dead bang contrary to the very clear teachings of my Christian faith. This seems to be a substantial inconsistency, and not merely Emerson’s “foolish inconsistency.”
So far as I’m concerned, Osama was an evil asshole when he was alive. Dead Osama is now a dead evil asshole.
It is difficult to set aside, or even acknowledge, intense emotional indexes attached to causes or people, particularly those involving negative emotions and more particularly those involving out and out hatred. Hatred, we are taught, is a terrible thing. Isn’t it? Moreover, where opinions are so fixed, when we attempt to have any rational give-and-take discussion, how quickly does it descend to “Screw you, Jack, you’re wrong, I’m right!”? I have just read The Eichmann Trial by Deborah Lipstadt. [A book review post follows before long]. The trial of Adolf Eichmann was nearly 50 years ago. This is the first extensive study of the trial in several years. And yet, this author becomes mired in emotional philosophy when discussing purely legal if highly controversial aspects of the case – the kidnapping/rendition of Eichmann from Argentina to Israel; the jurisdiction of the court of a country which did not exist when the criminal acts were committed; and significant issues with the conduct of trial such as who was on trial, the individual Eichmann or Eichmann as a representative of the system which prosecuted the Holocaust. Add to the intensity of the pain that these were events based fundamentally on religion, and you have a recipe for a real short and real nasty discussion.
The terrorist attacks of 2001 and the activities of Dead Osama and Company invoke religion. Is that fair? Well, isn’t Islam a nasty and evil religion? We can find within the Koran various suras (translated into English, of course) which support violence to infidels (that’s us) –and to which we have reacted with highly symbolic (if somewhat idiotic) symbolism such as burning Korans and so forth. On the other hand, isn’t Islam a religion of peace, roughly on a par with Christianity, Hinduism, and so forth? When Muslims speak of Mohammed or even Jesus, one of the correct responses is “Peace be unto Him.” That sounds pretty tame to me.
Besides, all things being equal, if the forces engaged against terrorists were to begin calling themselves the “Military Order of Christ” and using the fairly distinctive “Crusader Cross,” would they not be self identifying as Christian crusaders? (I know that’s unconstitutional as to American forces. This is a thought exercise. Work with me here.) In such a case, no organized Christian denomination would have to support this “crusade” for it to be perceived as what those darn Christians are doing. Just so, Osama & buds identified themselves as Muslim fighters fighting a Muslim war. Be it fair or unfair, their actions splash all Muslims. Not unsurprisingly, it’s always the biggest mouths which get the attention.
One lesson we might learn from this is that the United States and other powers arrayed against terrorism need to focus on terrorist acts, not the terrorist’s faith, and on our actions as promoting national interests and not a religious agenda.
Another question is the validity and usefulness of revenge generally. What we Christians call the Old Testament talks about “eye for an eye” justice. Some say that if everyone supports an eye for an eye, sooner or later, the world will be blind. Maybe that’s a logical extension, or maybe that’s a reductio ad absurdum, but to some extent it’s true.
Globally or individually, when (if ever) is revenge an appropriate motive for action? And if revenge is not appropriate as a motive, is it appropriate to do the same thing you would have had you been seeking revenge and justice justify it on practical grounds, or is that cheating?
In his own videotapes, Dead Osama states that he planned the 2001 New York/Washington terrorist attacks. He also said he was surprised at the degree of their success (success being defined by his goals at the time.) (Please, I do not want to hear from any “thermite conspiracy theorists” – if you’re one of those, go back and take a physics class.) And so, under “natural law,” and under human law generally accepted since before the mind of man runneth not to the contrary, Dead Osama committed thousands of murders – intentional, unjustified, unexcused killings of fellow human beings. Throughout most of human history, the just penalty for that has been seen as the death penalty. Is that a just penalty in this case? A necessary penalty? A dangerous penalty? In the practical world of physical conflict or even politics, if you cannot convert your enemy to a friend or ally, you need to crush them to the extent that they are never a danger to you again. That lesson has been (sort of) learned in several wars, and that is entirely a practical lesson. But to fulfill that practical need, those prosecuting the war seem to find that the very human desire for revenge is powerful fuel to promote those results. This human desire for revenge impels people to extreme sacrifice and monumental effort. Might this white heat be used cynically by those who want a result but who were not driven by that same heat? Pull the other one, what else is new? But the place of vengeance for those who really feel it and believe in it remains a bothersome question. As to Dead Osama, his life was ended violently and yet quickly. We can find various web offerings in questionable taste suggesting innovative and very lengthy methods by which his life might have been ended, and I am sure I could find a good bit of support for any of those methods. Was a bullet good enough vengeance? Was just dying good enough? It’s not like that was some unique result for him, that’s really the human condition. On the other hand, do those with the revenge motive in their hearts gain or find peace or fulfillment or anything positive from the death of now-Dead Osama?
The truth is, we do. It defies reason and responsible teaching, but we do anyway. I claim to be a fairly rational guy, and yet I cannot see a way that this feeling could be mellowed out of me in this particular case.
More problematic is the instance where vengeance is visited disproportionately to the original harm. When this is done, the aggrieved party still feels that he or she is wholly justified. And yet where the harm for which vengeance is taken – say, an insult – is not really dangerous, we have the clash of a (hopefully) rational society with a party who is in their own mind genuinely aggrieved. Of course, in most of those instances, the revenge acts are sanctioned by the criminal law. (In the sense that sanctions are imposed for doing the acts.)
I just remembered – one of the cable channels was showing the Charles Bronson movies, Death Wish I through V last week. The theme of those is the aggrieved and righteous vigilante. Perhaps those are stuck in the back of my mind as I’m ruminating tonight.
Certainly, military and counterterrorist planners are considering the reprisals which are planned by Dead Osama’s compatriots in revenge for last night’s raid. Certainly, we have a whole lot of pissed off terrorists out there. I have also heard suggestions that terrorist networks held out threats to protect Osama, but I don’t find that terribly persuasive given the willingness of terrorists to proceed with darn near anything. Certainly, there will be reprisals attempted, and we have to accept that some of them might be successful. The United States counterterrorist forces have done an astounding job protecting the homeland. It would be nice to think that perfection is achievable, but it’s pretty dumb to count on that.
My own tentative conclusion is that Dead Osama at the bottom of the ocean is a good thing, and I’m glad that justice made a house call.
We should remember to keep our brains engage. We should remember to avoid such anger, such bloodlust that the Eagle’s talons rip randomly rather than strike with cold precision.
It is a hard world. I have no idea how to fix that.
You’ve got to prime the pump.
You must have faith and believe.
You have to give of yourself
Before you’re worthy to receive.