This past week saw the news that United States Special Forces, namely the SEALs teams, were able to enter a compound just outside of Islamabad, Pakistan where the United States' "Public Enemy Number One," Osama bin Laden was in hiding.
Now, he is dead. Almost ten years have passed since the infamous destruction of the World Trade Center towers, the attack on the Pentagon and the aborted attack on the White House which resulted in the plane crash in a rural field in Pennsylvania.
Any number of feelings have been working their way through my psyche and heart for the past few days. One feeling is a rising sense of frustration with the "ongoing coverge" of the death of a terrorist leader after a decade of the death, destruction and economic stressors of wartime have done more to ravage the planet than he was able to accomplish during his now curtailed carrer as a public enemy of the State. Every news cycle, the media come online with "new details" and want to update us on what is being released, revealed or leaked about the raid, about bin Laden's death, about the various intelligence agencies and governments as they attempt to manage and spin opinion on this event.
In the midst of that frustration there is also a deep sadness. I am saddened by images of people standing at street corners belting out "God Bless America" and waving flags, bottles of champagne and beer cups as they congratulate each other with high fives that we as a nation "finally got him." There is reason to express release, surely. Relief, even, for people who lost, or are losing, loved ones after 9/11. But to celebrate the death of anyone? Even the leader of an "enemy" organization seems to me to only confirm and reaffirm the cycles of violence and hate that created these conflicts in the first place.
Don't get me wrong. I am no pacifist. When someone is attacking you, declaring war on your culture and community, then self-defense is justifiable. What I am saying is that to hunt and kill in order to expunge a blood debt we perceive as being owed us is only to perpatuate the war we did not delcare on itself. The argument is being made, perhaps justly, that this killing was the best justice that could be obtained in a bad situation. It is a marginal effort to find legal justification, but one I respect all the same.
What I fear in the end is that the death of one evil man will fail to do two things: 1) cause us to reconsider and review our choices as a nation over the last ten years, and seek clarity on what was justice and what was outright unjust war; and 2) to learn a lesson that one man's killing often does more to galvanize than to dispell a movement's center.
I am reading a book by a journalist, Christopher Hedges, entitled "War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning." In it, he describes war (and violent conflict) as akin to the addictive (and perception fogging) nature of the use and abuse of narcotics. The life we experience in war and conflict becomes an axis of perception that permits our moral compass to spin off kilter, deprives us of a common moral core set of assumptions and blasts our care for fellow humans who are not of our tribe, nation of political inclinations as subhuman.
He is clear, all of us are open to that "high" and all of us are vulnerable to the raw feelings that life in war, or even simple in regular social conflict. Witness the intense, take-no-prisoners political rhetoric of the day. Or, explore your reaction to hearing that a nation has intentionally killed a man. A decade ago, would be we celebrating? In a pre-9/11 world, I am convinced that we would see this week's events as exhibiting a level of barbarity that the United States should be above. Moreover, we would face radical condemnation from the world's community of nations for violating the sovreignty of another country's soil only a few short kilometers from its national capitol.
So, in the midst of this moral ambivalence I am experiencing, I turn to Jesus...fitting in Eastertide, the season of our Lord's Resurrection. He was a rebellious, seditious man whose followers posed a threat to the dominant superpower of the age. They used the most intentionally brutal form of execution known at the time to invoke shock, awe, fear, grief and paralysis to kill him and discourage his followers. How easy would it have been for them to galvanize around their leader in his new life to fight for the kingdom of God and expell the Romans from the Holy Land.
Instead, we learned a new way from the One whome God had raised from the dead:
"Peace I give you; my peace I give to you. I do not give as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid."
When we set aside fear, and put down violence and condemnation, what are we left with...Forgiveness? Reconciliation?
Not an easy path...not when the blood of the victims of violence cry out to us for repayment....
But, in Christ, the debt had been paid in full. That is the great challenge of all of this, I am convinced. Can we learn, and relearn, what it really means to be willing to beat our swords into ploughshares? Can we pray for the soul of an unrepentant man, and at the same time seek forgiveness from God for one more killing added to the lists in these terrible and costly wars? Not easy...and yet that is exactly what we are called to do as we strive for justice and peace.
I guess that is my heart right now. I accept that for many the death of bin Laden means release and perhaps peace of mind. My prayer is that perhaps we might someday find our way to a peace that does not require the blood of our enemies to maintain.