Post mortem

Reactions to bin Laden killing stir challenging, healthy debate

What should we make of the celebrations after Osama bin Laden’s death?

I teach and write about the ethics of war for a living, and this has been a strange week.  Some of my students were on the Boston Common, high-fiving and chanting. Such scenes of jubilation, the critics argue, look too much like dancing in the streets of Gaza after a terrorist attack on Israelis; or like dancing in the streets of Kabul after the destruction of the Twin Towers.

That’s a bad argument. There is a big difference between being happy about the deaths of innocent civilians and being happy about the death of a mass murderer of civilians.

Others have claimed that rejoicing over the death of a man, any man, even a sworn enemy, is a display of ugliness – that it amounts to putting our worst, most base, vindictive passions on show. 

I don’t know about that either. Dismissing our vindictive passions can be problematic. As the scholar Jeffrie Murphy points out, sometimes vindictiveness – a strong, persistent desire for revenge – is appropriate and indicative of self-respect rather than coarseness or depravity. It signals that wrongs committed against us matter; that we take them seriously enough to feel resentful and vindictive.

Still others have accused the students celebrating on the Common of cheap tribalism – chanting “USA, USA” and chest bumping as if the Celtics had just won a playoff game. But surely, how one celebrates doesn’t tell us all we need to know about whether or not one has a good reason to celebrate. Would the critics have been less agitated if the students raised a polite champagne toast to the Navy Seals instead?

The truth is that I don’t have much to say about the spontaneous combustion of happiness in the park. It’s been a dark, anxious decade without much good news. Two failed wars, one of them started under false pretenses, a lingering economic disaster and so on. A student I talked to this week put it this way:  “When we started thinking about and noticing politics, there was nothing to notice but failure.” So the excitement of younger people at what seems like an unmitigated success is understandable. The beers and high-fives are in poor taste, I think. But that’s an aesthetic rather than a moral judgment. 

There are, however, more important concerns than the celebrations on the Common and elsewhere.  First, isn’t it problematic that we Americans, self-proclaimed champions of the rule of law, assassinated a political leader without a trial? Shouldn’t we have captured bin Laden and indicted him for his crimes? This is a difficult question.  Let me follow it up with another: could bin Laden have received a fair trial in the United States? My guess is that bringing him before an American court would have become a spectacle, a show trial.

There are circumstances when show trials are useful, even important. The Israelis put Eichmann on a show trial in 1961. The primary purpose of that trial was, to quote Attorney General Housner who led the prosecution, “to bring people in Israel and the world closer to the essence of the Holocaust.” Housner (and Prime Minister Ben Gurion) wanted to educate Israel’s youth about the Holocaust, and in order to do so they created “a live reenactment of a gigantic national and human disaster.” That made sense at the time: Many native Israelis who had not gone through the war were ignorant about its horrors and even, on occasion, disdainful of the survivors. They needed to be taught.

But there is no real need to educate the world about September 11. We know all we need to know. Putting bin Laden on trial would promote neither the rule of law nor political education. If anything, such a trial would have discredited our commitment to impartial legalism.

And yet bin Laden had to be killed. The philosopher Hannah Arendt was sent by The New Yorker to cover the Eichmann trial. While she saw the proceedings for what they were, she remained convinced that Eichmann had to be put to death. Not because he was convicted by a court of law but, because “[he] supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth” with other peoples  “ as though [he]… had any right to determine who  should and who should not inhabit the world.” Consequently, she concluded, “no one, that is, no member of the human race can be expected to want to share the earth with [him].”  Without committing to any strict analogies between Eichmann and bin Laden or Al Qaeda and Nazism, Arendt’s rationale for killing Eichmann seems oddly apropos.

A second question is whether or not to release pictures and video footage of bin Laden’s body. President Obama has refused to do so. He argued that the images would not convince skeptics and may well inflame tensions and put American soldiers in danger. Moreover, he said of the idea of releasing the pictures, “That’s not who we are. You know, we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.” The president is right. In the Republic Plato recounts the story of Leontius who passed by the corpses of some recently executed men: “He desired to look but at the same time he was disgusted and made himself turn away; and for a while he struggled and covered his face. But finally, overpowered by the desires, he opened his eyes wide, ran to the corpses and said: ‘look you damn wretches, take your fill of the fair sight.’” 

Even if our eyes stray, in spite of ourselves, to take in gruesome images of death, we should call them back.  Being happy that an archenemy is dead is one thing. Putting his mangled, dead body on display for the entire world to see is quite another. Doing that moves us frighteningly close to Al Qaeda’s pornographers of death – those who regularly post their execution videos online. 

Meet the Author
Some of the students who approached me this week said they were confused and ambivalent about the killing.  I told them to befriend their ambivalence, and am trying to befriend mine. This is the most tentative essay I have ever written. It is strange to find oneself accepting post mortem celebrations and extra-judicial executions. But there you have it. Maybe this is what war does to those who think about it too much.  I can only hope that we remain more ambivalent, more self-reflective, more tentative than those we are fighting against.    

Nir Eisikovits is the director of Suffolk University’s Graduate Program in Ethics and Public Policy. His recent book is titled Sympathizing with the Enemy: Reconciliation, Transitional Justice, Negotiation.