A still of 2004 Osama bin Laden video

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It’s probably foolish to write anything about the death of Osama Bin Laden while his body is still warm, and the vuvuzelas are still sounding at Ground Zero just a few miles from my apartment. But I have to say I’m more than a little alarmed by the flood of exultation washing over me from Twitter, Facebook, and every website I’ve looked at in the past few hours.

I’m glad we got him. Just looking at his face on the front page of tomorrow’s New York Times brought back a bit of the fear, grief, and lost innocence I felt during that period when we all first became acquainted with his leering visage. He plotted to kill thousands of innocent people and succeeded, and for that alone he deserved to meet a violent end. I also realize it’s a much-needed boost of morale to the American people, who are through little fault of their own saddled with two wars that have mostly succeeded in multiplying their Islamist enemies and ending innocent lives. And least importantly, since President Obama seems to have been secretly directing the pursuit of Bin Laden virtually since he took office, this victory instantly silences any attempt by his opponents to portray him as weak in the face of our global antagonists.

But it’s a very measured relief beyond the momentary catharsis. The sudden, unexpected elimination of the perpetrator of the 9/11 crimes looks very different in the shadow of the past decade than it would have in 2002. The sudden surge of patriotism Americans are expressing so loudly and in some cases crassly tonight suggests they feel as if that decade has been somehow wiped away, as if the troubles are gone now that we’ve accomplished what we set out to accomplish in the very beginning.

But I’m going to be the killjoy who insists we look at what has happened since September 2001, and wonder if we can really celebrate on a very deep moral level at all. Osama bin Laden’s attack on America killed roughly 3,000 people. Since then, the U.S. government has launched two wars in nations that were not previously our enemies, and one of which had no connection whatsoever to the 9/11 attacks. At the most conservative, over 100,000 people have been killed in Iraq. Over 8,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan. Let that sink in for a moment: more innocent civilians have been killed in Iraq every year since 2003 than the number of Americans who died on 9/11. Over twice the number of 9/11 victims have been killed in Afghanistan. In the meantime, hundreds of innocent men and boys have been literally snatched from their families’ arms, tortured, renditioned, and held for years without evidence or charge—all ostensibly for the purpose of preserving and advancing democracy.

Americans understandably want to forget this—some of them refuse to acknowledge it at all. Bin Laden’s death and the subsequent universal chest-beating will probably help them further down that path. But I feel that it’s impossible to go back to the beginning of the dark decade previous without looking with deep dismay at its end. Had Bin Laden been assassinated in this fashion in December 2001 or May 2003, there would have been a clean justice to it: you kill innocent people, you die. But after the U.S. has behaved so tragically and violently, has shown such contempt for the rule of its own law and the sanctity of human beings, finally getting Bin Laden feels morally vacant, like an irrelevant footnote. It may make us feel better, may help Obama in the polls for a few weeks, and may deprive a few cynical Republicans of their rhetorical claptrap. And he clearly deserved to die. But what’s the satisfaction of killing a monster when our innocent body count has so massively eclipsed his?

People tend to respond horribly to discussions of moral equivalence, and I highly doubt much sober reflection of that nature will be happening in our country in the next few days. But as throngs overflow Lower Manhattan and Times Square, celebrating the killing of an enemy who orchestrated the deaths of their family members, I can’t shut out memories of those crowds in Middle Eastern cities chanting “Death to America!” that we watched with such fear and loathing. We both hit our targets, we both celebrate in the streets. We kill each others’ innocent—and we kill a whole lot more of their innocent.

So hooray! We got the guy who did it. It’s all fixed now.

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

  • *****

    I’ve been having the same thoughts…I have a brother in law in Afghanistan and I only think this is going to make matters worse in some respects…yes, in an ESPN sports center kind of way the “good guys” won today, but it just doesn’t sit well. So many (innocent) lives lost to get here and I fear so many more to come…

  • *****

    Its also interesting to see FB posts…so many glib/excited comments about Obama being in hell by my christian friends…I suppose a lot of that is frame of reference but for whatever reason it makes me pause- is that how we should respond? Surely his crimes on earth were without a doubt…I’m not suggesting mercy…if assigned to the mission would have pulled the trigger without hesitation…but joy at another’s perceived eternal fate? All too win-lose, black-white…uneasy feeling in my gut.

  • CapitalJon

    Good thoughts, but this idea that the unengaged are innocent is false and comes from an anti-kingdom perspective that preservation trumps justice and truth is what you make it.

    There are many important things to consider – but a number count isn’t one of them.

    If Christians can even be involved with or support a government that plays an active role in policing the world with military might, then it is the oppressed they should stand with always, no matter how unstable intervention makes the wicked society that oppressed them.

    It wasnt the dropping of bombs that made Iraq and Afghanistan enemies of the United States it was an incompatible world view that preexisted the official start of military engagement.

  • Friend of Patrol

    David,

    Thank you for the bravery you have shown by posting this article so quickly. I agree that brining Bin Laden to justice was the right thing to do. People of faith should remember these words from Proverbs.

    “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles” – Proverbs 24:17

  • http://www.emilythinksyoureawesome.blogspot.com EmilyTimbol

    Thank you for this. You formed a succinct, eloquent answer to the question I kept asking myself last night while watching the celebration, “Why am I not happy, and why do I feel so disconnected from America?”

  • Melancholy

    I was thinking the same thing. It has been hard for me to connect with the seeming joy that my peers have over the death of bin Laden. I understand that he was the mastermind behind so many acts of brutality and violence but I also believe that every person God made has value even if that individual denies the value of others.

  • d

    David, two things:

    1) You miss the true moral issue here. How should we respond when justice is done? If our response is based in closure or revenge or anger, that response is by nature wrong, and, I think, contrary to the heart of God. But there should be an appropriate way to “celebrate” justice, something that we are shown repeatedly in the Bible that God loves.

    2) I find your moral equivalence shocking. Not that America is innocent; we certainly are not. And some of the sins committed after 9/11 are the same as the ones committed by OBL like the purposeful killing of innocent Afghanis by a rogue American military unit. But attributing 100,000 deaths to the U.S.? Absolutely not. The vast, vast majority of those deaths are the result of an active insurgent/ terrorist group, based on the same ideology of OBL, who had the destruction of the fledgling Iraqi state its goal. The US should have foreseen such a struggle, but that is not the same as willingly causing the loss of life.

    I agree with what I think are the core elements of your post – 1) we shouldn’t express such gladness over a death, even a deserved one. 2) America too is stained by the killing of innocent civilians in the aftermath of 9/11, and this should give us pause when reflecting on OBL’s death. But your claims of moral equivalency based on body count are flawed. You lessen true evil by such comparisons and confuse more than you illuminate.

  • K

    I agree with the other comments about moral equivalency. You said “our innocent body count so massively eclipsed his” but that would be only considering the twin tower attack. Even this morning I read quotes from Muslims in Pakistan who said he was no martyr. He didn’t kill unbelievers only but more of his “fellow believers” if he was supposed to be religious.That is pointing to the many deaths he was responsible for among his own people and countrymen. The best news of the day is that an evil man met justice carefully and purposefully administered by a government authority, and citizens of the West AND true Islamic worshipers are sharing relief. I think relief is a much more fitting emotion than celebration for any people of faith.

  • Friend of Patrol

    Good article from Rabbi Arthur Waskow:

    ‘Let Us Rejoice Over Peace, Not Death’
    by Arthur Waskow

    http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/05/02-4

  • Nathan

    In response to d above, I can only say that justice is not 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians. Both of the wars we’ve entangled ourselves in, in the last decade were started with in the frame of justice both past (Afghanistan) and future (Iraq) crimes against us. We cannot hold the moral high ground with the indiscretion of these two wars, when the death count of civilians is so high.

    Justice for the dead of 9/11 is going after the individuals and religiously intolerant organizations involved. Bloody thirsty revenge was two expensive, ill-thought-out wars that have done far more harm than good.

    • http://joshuakeel.com Joshua Keel

      Nathan, I think “blood thirsty revenge” is a little stronger wording than is appropriate to describe the way in which we have engaged in those two wars. We don’t have to be full of “blood thirsty revenge” to have made huge mistakes. There are more ordinary explanations for our behavior. Fear, for instance.

    • Michael

      We also shouldn’t compare apples to oranges here. Comparing the death toll in iraq to the death toll on 9-11 is a bit wrong. 9-11 was planned to destroy those 3000 lives. The death toll in iraq is a result of a war, and was not intentional on the part of the US.

      Also, comparing more apples. The death toll in Saddam’s Iraq over his 30 year rule is conservatively estimated at 600K people. Your numbers hold that in the last 8 years in iraq 100K people have died. Operating from the basis of cold-hard math, the Iraqi people are better off today than they were under Saddam. (Cold math is harsh and I am not justifying the 100K dead iraqis, but it should be mentioned.)

      • Mike

        Why are we even entertaining the thought of tit for tat, balancing out death counts? Any avoidable deaths, intentional or not, should be unacceptable.

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