May 8, 2011
Fragmentary Justice in the Aftermath of Atrocity: Reflections on Osama Bin Laden’s Death
The American people are united in paying tribute to the U.S. military and to American intelligence operatives for the killing of Osama bin Laden. Almost all Americans — including many Republicans — are also willing to give President Barack Obama considerable credit for his courageous and considered judgment to order the attack on the compound and the capture of bin Laden.
Yet, there seems to be considerable division regarding whether pictures of bin Laden’s body should be released to the public. Some two-thirds approve of not releasing the photographs, and one-third — including many in the political and journalistic world — are in favor of releasing Osama’s photos. Their arguments vary: Some are arguing the public’s right to know, others believe that it will convince the world that bin Laden is dead, and still others merely want the satisfaction of seeing this murderer of Americans, of Westerners and of many more Muslims dead of gunshot wounds to the head.
I applaud the president for not releasing the photographs.
I do not believe that the photographs will convince the doubters, and I do believe that it could incite some in the world of radical Islam to ever greater violence and could, therefore, endanger American soldiers and/or other Americans.
Sometimes the imagination is more powerful than the actual photograph. Let people imagine what he looks like dead, shattered.
From the perspective of Jewish religious values, the decision not to release the photos is the right call; in fact, the only call.
Jewish tradition would easily sanction the attack on bin Laden: “If one comes to kill you, arise earlier and kill him,” the Talmud teaches. Self-defense is a sufficient justification.
But once the murderer is dead, his body must be treated with respect. After all, the murderer, even the mass murderer, is also a child of God — and, believe me, I do not envy God such children.
On Passover, Jews powerfully give expression to the desire for justice but also recognize that the perpetrators of injustice were also human.
Recall that we recite the Ten Plagues. Through the marvels of rabbinic commentary, we learn that because the Ten Plagues of Egypt were but the “finger of God”; at the sea, we experienced “the hand of God;” thus, there were 50 plagues. Because each plague had multiple dimensions to it, some rabbis say 200 and others say 250 plagues were inflicted on the Egyptians at the sea.
And yet, before we recite the Ten Plagues, we fill our wine cup, and as we recite them, we remove one drop of wine from the glass plague by plague, symbolically teaching that while the plagues were necessary, our cup is not full because there were human victims — even our oppressors.
According to the Bible, the Children of Israel began to sing of their victory at the sea. “God, the Warrior” [literally God is a man of war], “Who is like unto thee among those worshipped, Oh Lord?”
According to the midrash, when the angels sought to join this song in heaven, God silenced them: “My creatures are drowning in the Sea, and you sing songs?”
Bin Laden’s execution was so very well deserved that we can wholeheartedly celebrate his demise. The world is a slightly better place, but then we must remind ourselves — however difficult that reminder may be — that he was human and his body must be treated as it was, with respect.
We should not parade around with heads on swords. As the president said: “That’s not us” — at least, that should not be us.
Bin Laden’s death occurred on Yom HaShoah, the paradigmatic atrocity of the 20th century. It also coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Adolf Eichmann trial. Israel never showed a picture of the execution. Eichmann was cremated — as were his victims — his ashes scattered at sea so that there would be no grave to become a shrine. It was wise of the United States to bury bin Laden’s body at sea. His burial place will remain unknown, unmarked. No shrine will arise for his followers.
The media kept asking whether bin Laden’s death brought closure for those who had lost a loved one on 9/11, or even to the American people, as if there was a simple equation. They failed to grasp the difference between a tragedy and an atrocity.
The bombing of the World Trade Center — like the Oklahoma City bombing before it, and, without comparing the events, like the Holocaust 66 years ago — was not a tragedy but an atrocity. The reason the people of Oklahoma City could find no closure to their suffering after the execution of Timothy McVeigh was because of the imbalance between the magnitude of the crime and the limited justice that could be achieved.
Even the killing of bin Laden will offer no closure to the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings because the justice achieved can never balance the injustice of the deed. It is fragmented justice — at best.
Even as we rebuild, even as the 9/11 Memorial is opened, even as the site of the World Trade Center is repopulated with buildings and people, even as widows have remarried and orphans have given birth to their own offspring, the void will remain — absence where presence had been. So it must be in the aftermath of atrocity.