Like millions of Americans, I watched with rapt attention as our President spoke from the East Room last night, announcing that an American special-ops team had infiltrated a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden, the exiled Saudi millionaire/jihadist who had inspired and financed the 9/11 attacks.
For a time, I felt pleased that this evil man had finally met his end. Although I like to think otherwise, I’m sure part of my satisfaction was attributable to a feeling of retributive justice—the sort of “eye for an eye” kind of Old Testament thinking that came naturally with my Jewish upbringing.
Then, waking up this morning and seeing images of jubilant crowds celebrating in the streets adjacent to Ground Zero and along Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, I wondered if this was not some national expression of schadenfreude.
As a Buddhist and as one who tries—as the Old Testament prophets might say—to live justly, love mercy and walk humbly through this life, I would not want to celebrate the suffering of another. But was bin Laden’s killing a necessary evil, the unfortunate imposition of suffering on a few that many, many others would not suffer?
It is, of course, hard to say. There are many who oppose the use of violence in any form, for any reason, rejecting any notion that a few may have to suffer for a greater good (the prevention of further or broader suffering). Should bin Laden have been left be? I do not think so. Letting him continue to live freely, unmolested, would possibly result in further acts of terror in which hundreds or thousands of innocents would be slaughtered.
Was there any other option? Without knowing more about last night’s lethal raid, who’s to say?
But perhaps there was another way, a strategy under which he could have been seized, arrested and put on trial—a real trial, with civilian judges, a jury, and all the procedural accouterments that we afford to others accused of crimes.
Those who argue that men like bin Laden or Khalid Sheikh Muhammad can’t be tried in court forget that, sixty-odd years ago the free nations of the world did just that with the heinous perpetrators of the Nazi Holocaust. Twenty years later, the Israelis—yes, the Israelis, whose populace had been far more deeply scarred by the Shoah than Americans have been by 9/11—put Adolf Eichmann on trial, in front of judges, in accordance with normal judicial procedures. In all such cases, the guilty were convicted, and justice was served.
So is it true that this was the only way—that the only way to settle the score with bin Laden was to assassinate him under cover of darkness?
I am not convinced. And if there was another way—a way that would have favored a judicial process rather than an extrajudicial killing—wouldn’t that have been a more ‘American’ approach? We are a nation of laws. If we cannot uphold the values of due process and justice under these challenging circumstances, then due process and justice can be compromised, or worse—abandoned—when the crimes complained of are too severe.
This mass expression of jubilant schadenfreude masks something far more disturbing: a willingness to abandon the basic principles of justice and freedom for which our country supposedly stands.
Sometimes there’s no other way. But sometimes there is—and it takes courage to choose the other, more difficult way.