Osama bin Laden is dead. That is a good thing, and no one with any degree of moral sanity could feel differently. But does it follow that it is right to rejoice in his death and openly celebrate it? Among the thronging crowds outside the White House and Ground Zero, on college campuses and city streets across the country, the answer was a resounding yes. And in the statements of America’s leading public figures, the coverage and commentary of its mainstream media, the same sentiments of joy and happiness were echoed. But the feeling is not unanimous. A statement released by the Vatican reflects the feelings of many uncomfortable with Sunday night’s festive atmosphere: “In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.”
Similar sentiments have been heard from other religious and community leaders, on editorial pages and in the blogosphere and across social-networking sites. Even for those who do choose to celebrate, there may be twinges of uncertainty and ambivalence at the prospect of rejoicing in someone’s death. There is a reason, after all, that such celebration is not a common occurrence. Not in American culture, at least. Of course there is a culture in which the celebration of death is not only common, but paramount: the culture of suicidal mass murder that is the very core of Osama bin Laden’s ideology.
Is America’s joyful reaction then a sign that we have strayed toward darkness? Were the crowds of chanting, hooting, dancing youth in Washington and New York actually America’s equivalent of the so-called angry Arab Street, which, egged on by the ideological compatriots of bin Laden, burn American flags, behead effigies of our leaders, and chant “Death to America”?
Absolutely not. In fact, the surface similarities serve only to highlight just how opposite are their meanings and motivations. The celebrations across America did not glorify death. In fact, they weren’t really about death at all. The crowds didn’t lynch effigies of bin Laden; they didn’t burn Korans or trample the flags of Muslim nations; they didn’t raise armed soldiers on their shoulders or shoot rifles into the air; they didn’t chant for vengeance or death to other nations, peoples, or religions. No, these crowds of all races and creeds came together and raised American flags, sang patriotic songs, drank and made merry, embraced and shook one another’s hand. They did not glorify death, but rather affirmed life — their own lives and the life of their country at its moment of great victory over an enemy dedicated to bringing death to its shores.
That enemy was not just Osama bin Laden the man. It was the real, operational threat he posed to the life of every single American citizen around the world. And it was the organization, the mission, and the very ideology of terror that he represented and of which he had willfully and masterfully made himself the ultimate symbol during his decades-long career. The moral confusion about the issue has come about because the end to all three of these different conceptions of the bin Laden enemy — the man, the threat, the symbol — occurred simultaneously rather than separately, as they did, for instance, in the case of America’s last encounter with a larger-than-life evil: Saddam Hussein.