It is hard to know how to react to the news that U.S. military forces have killed Osama bin Laden, inspirational leader behind the Al Qaeda terrorist network. The mix of relief and grief displayed by crowds in the streets outside the White House and the Capitol building is a human response in such an emotionally charged situation.
At the same time, there is nothing glorious in violent murder — whether in bin Laden’s death or in the horrific deaths of his thousands of victims. “I am not celebrating this man’s death,” said Francesca Jerez on ABC news, whose father was killed on Sept. 11. “That’s not what this is about. It’s about final justice. Now he cannot take credit for anything else. He cannot hurt anyone else.” As Charles Wolfe, husband of a 9/11 victim said in an interview, “We let the Judge of All Things pass justice on [bin Laden].”
A recent article by nonviolence expert Michael Nagler on Libya provides a framework that can be applied to the death of bin Laden and put it into some kind of context. Nagler writes about what Gandhi called the “madman with a sword” analogy:
Gandhi said flatly that if a madman is raging through a village with a sword he who “dispatches the lunatic” will have done the community (and even the poor lunatic) a favor. Here are Gandhi’s exact words, from The Hindu,1926:
Taking life may be a duty…. Suppose a man runs amok and goes furiously about, sword in hand, and killing anyone that comes in his way, and no one dares capture him alive. Anyone who dispatches this lunatic will earn the gratitude of the community and be regarded as a benevolent man.
From other sources, however, we see that to use lethal force without actually being violent is extremely tricky. Remember always, by the way, that we are talking about an extreme emergency. One cannot prepare to use lethal force against such a situation because if one has time to prepare one can prepare nonviolence. Arming airline pilots in case there are hijackers does not count. That understood, several other conditions must be met: 1) One must act as far as possible without anger or fear. One must harbor no hatred of the deranged party. Even lunatics are people. 2) One must not complain if one is injured in the process. Life will not always appear fair to our limited vision. 3) And by far the most important condition: One must not feel that s/he has solved the problem once the maddened person is successfully stopped and innocents protected. Instead, one must dedicate some serious time and effort, to asking how we have created a world where this can happen — and how to change it.
On the edges of the news stories we hear language from the Obama administration that hints at acting with some dignity in the midst of violence. Obama’s careful attention to avoid civilian casualties in the swift attack on the bin Laden house. Also the information that bin Laden’s body is being handled according to Muslim burial customs. This is the kind of dignity that reflects well on Americans — a dignity not accorded to bin Laden’s victims.
My prayer is that this does not become an opportunity to glorify more death, but instead a decisive moment to actively create a world where the violent evil of Osama bin Laden no longer gains a foothold.