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Celebrating the Death of Bin Laden?

May 9, 2011


Celebrating the Death of Bin Laden?

By Rev. Robert Barron

Osama bin Laden was a wicked man, responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent people on several continents, and responsible too for something more subtle and insidious, the terrifying of practically everyone on the planet. I believe that fear-mongers deserve special opprobium, since, they produce that state of mind, which, as St. John tells us, is the opposite of love: “perfect love casts out all fear.” The memory of September 11th is like a nightmare that will forever haunt and nag and trouble the consciousness of mankind. It is impossible to doubt what President Obama said, namely, that the world is a better, safer place without the cruel and hateful man at the source of all this misery.

I heard the news of Bin Laden’s death when I was in Rome for the beatification of Pope John Paul II. I watched some of the coverage on the BBC and CNN, taking in the scenes of Americans celebrating at Ground Zero, at the Mets Phillies game, and in front of the White House. I completely understood the feelings of jubilation and patriotic pride that they were exhibiting, and I will admit that I felt them too. There was indeed a keen sense that at least a measure of justice had been done in putting Osama bin Laden to death. And there was, too, just that wonderful release that comes when a great threat has been made to disappear. Some of the celebrations yesterday put me in mind of the unrestrained rejoicing at the end of World War II.

In the midst of all the shouting, however, another small voice was heard, that of Pope Benedict XVI. The Pope commented very simply that it is never right to celebrate the death of another human being, no matter how vile. I am quite sure that the Pope is under absolutely no illusions regarding Osama bin Laden. He is not the least bit interested in exculpating him for his crimes. But he reminded Christians of a disturbing and deeply challenging truth that stands at the very heart of our moral tradition, namely, that we must love everyone, even our enemies. Jesus said, “bless those who curse you; pray for you who maltreat you; if someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and give him the other.” This has nothing to do with sentimentality; nor is it a matter of being “soft” on crime. Original sin—the irreducible depravity that all of us experience in ourselves—is a fundamental Christian doctrine. But it is an acknowledgement that all of us are children of the one God and hence brothers and sisters to one another. We are connected, through God, by bonds that are deeper than the ties of nationality, culture, religion, or family. Whether we like it or not, we are implicated in each other.

And therefore our enemies are also our brothers and our sisters. Notice please, that I am not denying that we have enemies, real enemies, who are wicked, twisted, violent, and dangerous. But it is a Christian conviction that all of that evil is not telling the deepest truth about the enemy. The deepest truth is that he or she is a child of God and thus worthy of our love. None of this implies, of course, that wicked people should not be arrested, brought to justice, punished, or even, in extreme cases, that they should be killed. If, for example, in the process of bringing bin Laden to justice, our soldiers were fired upon, they had the right to return that fire. But it does indeed imply that the person so arrested, tried, imprisoned, or even put to death, should remain a beloved brother or sister.

How should this manifest itself? There are heroic examples of enemy love, such as the Amish couple, who befriended and then defended in court the young man who had brutally killed their own son; or Cardinal Bernardin, who visited and anointed the man who had accused him falsely of sexual misconduct. But these are precious and rare. Something that all of us can do is to pray for those who maltreat us, offering them to God, expressing a spiritual solidarity with them. This is why I found it particularly moving that the American forces who buried Osama bin Laden at sea gave this terrible man a proper Islamic funeral service.

We should celebrate that the world is a safer place and that a wicked man has been brought to justice. But the Pope is right: we shouldn’t celebrate that our enemy is dead. As hard as it is to say, we should pray for him as an act of love.