Crazy for Osama
Writing is a dangerous business. Perhaps not quite as
dangerous as, say, being a US Navy Seal, but writers do face their own unique
challenges. One of those challenges is the constant downward pressure on your
own beliefs and opinions. When you are looking to get published, your most
careful and nuanced thoughts tend to become a bit squished and compact; rules
of logic devolve into rules of thumb, and cautious conclusions morph over time into
potentially absurd attitudes.
Take, for example, some of the responses
to the recent killing of Osama bin Laden. If one’s first instinct is to compare
jubilant Americans celebrating the death of bin Laden to jubilant Muslims
celebrating the death and destruction of September 11, then you are, I suspect,
just a tiny bit crazy.
“Diseased, sickly”, “full of cracks or flaws” and “of unsound mind or behaving
as so” are all relevant etymological definitions of craziness, which in this
instance manifests as an inability to see the most striking and essential
differences between joy at the death of a moral monster, and joy for the death
As Kellie Tranter wrote for the
“The public celebrations in the West
Bank after the awful events of September 11 that appalled us in the West seem
somehow eerily mirrored in the celebrations we are now
witnessing at the White House. Pick the difference!”
Don’t judge too harshly the remarks of such commentators. It
is important to understand that for a writer, major events provoke an
instinctive professional response: “Is there something I can write about this?”
Being creatures of consistency and habit, it is a struggle to see each new
event with the fresh eye it deserves. If your whole life is devoted to
defending the weak against the strong, then you may struggle to interpret bin
Laden’s death as something more than just a strong government killing a weak
man. If you spend your career battling against popular ignorance or prejudice,
then you will have to resist the urge to interpret popular joy at bin Laden’s
demise as somehow needing correction.
As an ethicist, I am always questioning things that seem obviously good or ill. It is natural for
me to question the goodness of bin Laden’s demise, simply because it seems good at face value.
This is, after all, the very definition of prejudice – it
means “prior judgement” and therefore implies a preconceived opinion. If I
think that the government is always untrustworthy, then I have implicitly
prejudged everything the government says and does. If you believe that American
imperialism is the cause of the world’s problems, then this prejudice will
shape your interpretation of future events, even blinding you to the morally
significant differences between celebrating the death of bin Laden and
celebrating the deaths of thousands of innocent people.
So let’s lend our aggrieved commentators a hand, to help
them regain their sympathy for the ordinary human response to bin Laden’s
death. When Palestinians celebrated on September 11, people were appalled. Why
were they appalled? Because celebration implies happiness, and happiness
implies that something good has happened. In other words, the Palestinians were
celebrating because they thought that the death and destruction of September 11
was a good thing. Whatever excuses might be made for such a view, we cannot
deny that it is morally warped. A child in the West Bank cheering the
destruction in America may be more tragic than malicious, but either way it is still
Now, if we all agree (I hope) that the terrorist attacks on
September 11 were profoundly evil, then it follows that the perpetrators and
instigators of the attacks deserve to be punished – to face justice. We might
argue about the type of punishment bin Laden deserved, but it should at least
be in proportion to the gravity of his crimes. Given that US forces were unable
capture bin Laden alive, we are left with his violent death as the nearest
approximation of justice.
President Obama used the word “demise“ which
literally means “put away”. Having been “put away”, bin Laden is no longer able
to contribute to the terrorist campaign against the West, he is no longer able
to kill innocent people, he is no longer able to evade justice, and he has
suffered the ultimate punishment for his past crimes. These are all good
things, and of special relevance to the Americans we have seen celebrating in
the streets. Their happiness is not perverse, like those who celebrated the
killing of thousands of innocent civilians. Rather, their happiness is - in
principle at least - an appropriate response to the very just fate of a
particularly dangerous and wicked human being.
Knowing this, it can be hard to imagine why some people
would be so dismissive or callous in the face of genuine relief and happiness
at bin Laden’s demise, or go so far as to compare it to the perverse joy
exhibited by some in response to the terrorist attacks nearly ten years ago. It
really does seem crazy, in the sense of being removed from reality, that such
people do not recognise the gulf between those who laud the killing of
innocents, and those who celebrate the demise of an unrepentant mass murderer.
Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.
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