On the killing of Bin Laden

I had thought to write something astute about the great dance that broke out upon the skull of Bin Laden. I had thought to chastise the Sun and its squalling ROT IN HELL headline. Point out cleverly that unlike the climate of some of its journalism, the conditions of hell were in fact not conducive for composting.

I wanted to expose what I saw as our eroticism of revenge. But then I wondered whether the death of Bin Laden might help heal deep wounds experienced by the families who lost so much.

As many have done, I’ve imagined myself a father, husband, friend, of someone murdered on that horrific day a decade ago. And I am at loss.

By accounts, some are finding a sense of what they call closure, and others consider Bin Laden’s killing a hollow thing, a pyrrhic closure.

And so anything I say from here on must come under the judgement of people who were closest to the tragedy. As it is, I am neither counsellor nor sociologist, I am an expert of nothing much—simply an observer.

What struck me then was not the legitimate desire of justice for the aggrieved, but the fascination that polarized a nation; the great western gallery was suddenly galvanized by the death of one man. There was a surge of nationalism; an instant brotherhood through focused hatred; unification by hostility; coalesced by being on the good, right side.

Then came the voices of past administrations: justice is done, we will be avenged, time is no object. (No mention here that our war on terror has cut down civilian families far surpassing the number of those on 9/11.) Now we are freer and safer and stronger—say the voices—our lives have been returned to us.

There was dancing and chanting in the streets, at state capitals; and at the hallowed centres of Capitol Hill and Ground Zero there was near delirium—all ritual aspects of the sacred mechanism of security and supposed peace through singular reprisal—with the latent lust for ready violence heavy in the air.

It can’t be sustained of course. Now a couple weeks later there are reasoned discussions on the symbolic versus the real. Bin Laden: cipher or malevolent genius. His death: harbinger for peace talks or ersatz victory or catalyst for terror?

kc_pubNoImageBut it’s not the event itself—it’s our response to the event that we should consider. And the question we should face is whether we have the self-awareness to see that irrational fanaticisms are not one-sided.

Christianism—that strange brew of nationalism and fundamentalism and resent-driven neoconservatism—and Islamism are twins. They are locked together in an escalation of extremes.

Here, biblical apocalyptic literature begins to make sense. Not as the view of God’s end-time wrath dropped on the heads of the unregenerate, but in the anthropological understanding that our own wrath is visited and revisited upon ourselves by unrestrained reciprocal rivalry.

When scapegoats are fed to the fire like sticks—their power to restrain violence ever decreasing—when the pockets and periods without violence steadily shrink, when military technology has become master, and is its own raison d’etre, when government policies feed the machinery of war, and when governments themselves have lost the means to control violence, total war becomes a daily possibility.

Add to this our acceptance of violence as legitimate for sustaining communal life, our complicit silence that feeds the notion that war is normative—that war is simply a prolongation of policy—and talk of peace is thought to be incomprehensible, passé, or a romantic delusion.  And the apocalyptic spectre grows.

Yet even here, hope is not incompatible. We can recover our souls and our sanity. The way of empathy, kindness, and mercy, born out by leaving violence behind, is the narrow way opened to us and modelled in the life of Jesus.

Salvation is given meaning in the denouncement of violence. And not only in obvious violence, but in the low-key violence of commerce, and in our own grasping skirmishes and daily retaliations.

In detachment, in unlearning envy, in relearning desire through eyes unmoved by fear and death, eyes that delight in us, that gently hold us, that invite us out of “us and them”, to “we”, there is hope and peace.


  1. You didn’t only think to write something astute about the celebration of Bin Laden’s death–as always, what you offered is perceptive and insightful and true.

  2. The reaction harkens back to celebrations of military triumphs throughout history proving yet again human nature hasn’t changed very much in the past 5000 years.

  3. Ah, yes! “‘The narrow way’ of empathy, kindness, and mercy, ‘and few there be that find it'”. As usual, Steve, you offer sober reflection with seasoned perspective.

  4. Thank you Connie, for kind words.

    Kelly, thanks for the encouragement and for the link.

    Ian, I believe you’re mostly right about human nature; of course the point of the article is that outside of a fundamental change, that “nature” could exterminate us, and that capability is something that’s new.

    Michael, good question…and thank you.

    Ike, Thank you, you’re own seasoning has helped me.

  5. The last paragraph is such an unexpectedly beautiful alternative and shining contrast to the subject matter. Thank you.

  6. Thanks, Steve – a thoughtful and compassionate response. I was caught too by the incongruity of celebrating on the news of Bin Laden’s death. I would love it if you could sometime elaborate on statements like:

    “The way of empathy, kindness, and mercy, born out by leaving violence behind, is the narrow way opened to us and modelled in the life of Jesus.” Where and how did Jesus model this?

    “Salvation is given meaning in the denouncement of violence.” How would you elaborate on this?

    “… in the low-key violence of commerce,” There is something profound here, that leaves me feeling complicit…

  7. Thank you Sam. I will file your questions and produce a post, or perhaps an essay. (At the same time, I hope I’ve more than poked at the edges of these over the course of Grow Mercy.)

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