A President's Reflections

The real cost of evil

Posted on May 5, 2011

The death of Osama bin Laden this week has rightfully been the main topic in the news media and subject to endless analysis.  Some part of me felt the same sense of relief and justice done that so many expressed across the country.  Whether or not bin Laden exerted much operational guidance any longer, his death strikes at the symbolic heart of the radical Islamist movement and feels historic.

What quietly bothered me was the cheering crowds gathered in Time Square, Washington, and on many college campuses gleefully chanting “USA, USA” and reveling in the death of the world’s most notorious terrorist.  So it was with some relief that I saw on the front page of the Boston Globe today a story about that uneasiness and many people’s struggle with how we should respond to the killing of another human being, even one guilty of such reprehensible crimes (http://www.boston.com/news/nation/washington/articles/2011/05/05/rejoicing_over_death_of_bin_laden_debated/).

Yes, I understand that the world is better off with his death.  I also understand the catharsis and shared in it.  I don’t for a moment second guess the decision to shoot him rather than take him alive (Who can know what that situation felt like at the moment when split second decisions are life and death?) and I am relieved we do not have to go through a trial of any kind.  For young people who have come of age in the shadow of this symbolic bogeyman, I suppose it feels like the end of the Cold War did for those of us who grew up with “duck and cover” and nuclear nightmares. 

Yet the joyous crowds had the taint of blood lust about them and seemed little different than the celebrating crowds we saw around the bodies of American servicemen in Mogadishu or when they hung American soldiers’ bodies from a bridge in Felujah.  I remember wondering what savage core had been tapped in those people, reveling in the death and mutilation of a person (even those as hated as Americans in those worlds), and feeling that somehow our modern society was bigger and better than that tribal lust for violence and revenge.

Maybe not.

Don’t get me wrong, I won’t lose any sleep over bin Laden’s death.  However, I will recall a column that Globe columnist and writer Jim Carroll wrote after the trial of a terrible and debased child rapist and killer in California many years back.  At this trial, he seemed pure evil, reveling in his act and saying awful things to the grief stricken and anguished parents.  I remember everyone — myself included — wanting to see him dead.  Then Carroll wrote a column about the way evil wins when it sucks us in and lowers us to its level.  When we summon up a deeply suppressed urge for blood and suffering, we participate in that evil rather than rising above it.  Adding to the quotient of death and suffering in the world does not make the world a better place. Nor does reveling in it.

The death of bin Laden will not bring back any of his victims.  It will not erase the way the US came to surrender much of what was best about it when we started torturing people, violating civil and human rights, and becomingless open and free.  It may or may not make us safer.  Osama bin Laden made us less than we were before 9-11 and in his last act — dying — he may have done it again when he tapped into our baser collective selves.

One thought on “The real cost of evil

  1. I too was disturbed by the chanting and the joy that seemed to be overtaking the public over the death of bin Laden. The quiet dignity of the families of the victims and their poise in handling the latest development was what inspirational. Instead of relief or happiness over the death of yet another human being, it was more a time to remember the victims and the sense of sadness for their loss.

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