We live in a time very different from any in the past.
As a rule, little changes in basic human responses. For example, it is probably fair to say that throughout human history, just about all decent people have celebrated the death of those human beings understood to be truly evil.
It takes a lot to change such basic human reactions. But over the last generation, a major attempt to do so has been made. And it has somewhat succeeded.
Osama bin Laden, a man whose purpose in life was to inflict death and suffering on as many innocent people as possible — the more innocent his victims, the greater his achievement — was finally killed, and much of the Western world’s religious and secular elite has expressed moral annoyance with those who celebrated this death.
The argument is that no person’s death should be celebrated. Therefore celebrations of bin Laden’s death are morally questionable.
Pastor Brian McLaren, named one of Time magazine’s “25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America” in 2005, expressed this view. Reacting to television images of young Americans chanting “USA! USA!” on the night bin Laden’s death was announced, the pastor wrote, “I can only say that this image does not reflect well on my country. … Joyfully celebrating the killing of a killer who joyfully celebrated killing carries an irony that I hope will not be lost on us. Are we learning anything, or simply spinning harder in the cycle of violence?”
Another example: CNN reported the reaction of an Episcopal priest, Danielle Tumminio, whose Long Island neighborhood lost scores of people in the 9/11 attacks. When she saw images of Americans celebrating, “My first reaction was, ‘I wish I was with them.’ … My second reaction was, ‘This is disgusting. We shouldn’t be celebrating the death of anybody.’ It felt gross.”
Likewise many Jews, including rabbis, have cited traditional — though sometimes seemingly conflicting — Jewish attitudes regarding the death of evildoers.
One frequently cited source is a famous talmudic one: “When the Egyptians were drowning in the Sea of Reeds, the angels wanted to sing. But God said to them, ‘The work of my hands is drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?’ ”
Also noted is that at the Passover seder, Jews for centuries have taken drops from their cups of wine as they enumerated the Ten Plagues suffered by Egyptians. The Jews’ joy shall not be unalloyed.
And the biblical Book of Proverbs states, “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice, and when he stumbles, let your heart not exult, lest the Lord see and be displeased, and turn His wrath away from him.”
On the other hand, the Talmud also states, “When the wicked perish from the world, good comes to the world.” And the Book of Proverbs states, “When the wicked perish, there is joyful song.”
So what is one to make of this mixture of sentiments?
I do not see them as contradictory. God may chastise angels for singing at the drowning of the Egyptian army. But God does not chastise Moses and the Children of Israel for singing at the Egyptians’ drowning. People may do so; angels may not.
Secondly, it is one thing to celebrate the fall of one’s personal enemy; it is quite another to celebrate the fall of evil individuals. The two Proverbs citations are not contradictory. The vast majority of our personal enemies are not evil people. Therefore we should not exult at their downfall. And the vast majority of the truly evil are not our personal enemies. Bin Laden was not my personal enemy. He was the enemy of all that is good on earth.
It seems to me that if one does not celebrate the death of a truly evil person, one is not celebrating the triumph of good over evil. I do not see how one can honestly say, “I am thrilled that bin Laden can no longer murder men, women and children, but I do not celebrate his death.”
Yes, I know one can argue that bin Laden’s arrest and life imprisonment would have also prevented his murdering anyone else. Indeed, anyone opposed to capital punishment would have to prefer that bin Laden had been captured and tried. But no one could argue that a dead bin Laden is less likely to provoke further terror than a living bin Laden.
Celebrating the death of bin Laden is a moral imperative. The notion that Islamists who celebrated 9/11 are morally equivalent to Americans who celebrated bin Laden’s death is the product of a morally confused mind. It places the killing of 3,000 innocents on the same moral plane as the killing of the person responsible for those murders.
The British historian Andrew Roberts, whose history of World War II was published last week, has summed up the situation well:
“My countrymen’s reactions to the death of Osama bin Laden have made me doubt my pride in being British. The foul outpouring of sneering anti-Americanism, legalistic quibbling, and concern for the supposed human rights of our modern Hitler have left me squirming in embarrassment and apology before my American friends. … Britons utterly refuse to obey the natural instincts of the free-born to celebrate the death of a tyrant. When the Mets-Phillies baseball game erupted into cheers on hearing the wonderful news, or the crowds chanted ‘USA! USA!’ outside the White House, they were manifesting the finest emotional responses of a great people.”
When you spend as much time as Roberts has studying real evil, that’s what you write. When you spend your life in Britain or America and know little about real evil, you write about how wrong it is to celebrate the death of people like bin Laden.
All those rabbis and others who think it immoral or un-Jewish to celebrate bin Laden’s death will one day have to confront a Jew named Arie Hassenberg, a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau. As quoted by Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander, after one of the Auschwitz sub-camps (Monowitz) was bombed by the Allies, Hassenberg’s reaction was: “To see a killed German; that was why we enjoyed the bombing.”
Was Hassenberg’s reaction wrong or un-Jewish? I don’t think so. What I suspect distinguishes Hassenberg from those who lament celebrating the death of the truly evil is that Hassenberg experienced true evil.
Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).