Reacting to the Death of Osama Bin Laden: We Should Reflect, Not Rejoice

I was checking my email late Sunday night when I noticed a headline on the New York Times website: "President Obama to address the nation." "They've caught Bin Laden," I said to my husband. "There is nothing else urgent enough for an instant press conference on a Sunday night." As I waited for the President's speech, I realized I really didn't know how I felt. Relief? Renewed sadness over 9/11? How are you supposed to feel when your enemy falls?

For me, as for many Americans, this is not a theoretical question. I was in New York on 9/11 and watched the Twin Towers get hit. Even though more than 10 years have passed, there is part of me that is still back on that day, under attack and scared. I've long viewed my work at Rabbis for Human Rights -- North America (RHR-NA) fighting torture as my patriotic response to what I experienced. The best way to beat the terrorists was to uphold America values about freedom and the rule of law. I felt that the most fitting end to the search for bin Laden would have involved a fair trial in an American court room, with the terrorist locked up for years and years. As the wrangling over Guantanamo intensified, it became clear that such an end for bin Laden was unlikely. Rabbi Arthur Waskow described bin Laden's death in a firefight as a "sad necessity." But the scenes of unbridled celebration outside of the White House seemed at odds with the solemnity of the moment. I watched them and was deeply uncomfortable. For me, they transformed the moment into one of revenge. Maybe I am overreacting. Surely, those of us on the left tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to moments of patriotism. But I don't think I am wrong. I cannot celebrate the death of another human being.

I'm not alone in my ambivalence. A quick survey of my friends shows that many of them are quoting the midrash about the death of the Egyptians at the Red Sea, when the angels are chastised for celebrating the death of God's creatures. To actively celebrate over the death of another human being (sacred and created in God's image) feels wrong, no matter how evil or how much they are our enemy. But others of my friends pressed that the celebration of the death of an individual enemy was different than rejoicing over the killing of innocents. The joy they felt was not one of revenge but of relief that evil had been overcome. As Rabbi Morris Allen posted on Facebook, he spills wine at seder for the suffering of the Egyptians during the plagues but not for the Pharaoh who caused their deaths. Osama Bin Laden was such a Pharaoh.

The President's somber tone in his announcement should give us guidance for the national mood. It was not a time for rejoicing -- the death of bin Laden will not bring back the lives that were lost. It was our job as a nation not to pursue revenge but to seek justice. As activists, we translate tzedek as righteousness when we said tzedek tzedek tirdof ("justice justice you shall pursue") and seek a more equitable world. But today we are reminded that justice is one of the pillars on which the world is built. God demands us to seek out justice.

I'm not sure what I mean right now. I'm relieved that an evil has been eliminated from the world. I'm mourning our lost Six Million. I'm watching the crowds on Pennsylvania Ave and Ground Zero, weeping at all that happened and is forever changed, aching for some healing and some small amount of hope. I'm still hearing the testimony from a Shoa survivor shared less than three hours ago echoing in my heart, proud to have joined as a large Berkeley Jewish community to bear witness to our collective pain. I'm lost right now. That's all I think I can mean at the moment. We do not rejoice at the death of our enemy. The implementation of justice is not a joyful celebration. As Rabbi Cohen writes of watching the recording of Eichmann's trial, "In this man's eyes are reflected the ghosts of his uncountable victims...and also nothing at all." I am riveted by the face of Bin Laden. I do not want to look into his eyes. Those eyes witnessed the snuffing out of so much life; those eyes remained willfully blind to the pain and loss he caused. I believe justice has indeed been served today. Joylessly, as is appropriate.

The reaction of the religious community has largely been along those lines as well. The Vatican called on Catholics to not rejoice but reflect on the death as an opportunity for furthering peace. The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good reminded us: "Our response is disciplined by belief that war itself is tragic and that all killing in war, even in self-defense, must be treated with sobriety and even mournfulness. War and all of its killing reflects the brokenness of our world. That is the proper spirit with which to greet this news." Two of the major Muslim organizations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America, have framed bin Laden's death in terms of justice for victims of 9/11 and repeated President Obama's call for national unity. Like the President, they also took the opportunity to remind American that the radical terrorist did not represent or speak for Islam.

My friend Rabbi Noah Farkas wrote:

"It's not the celebration on the day of the death of an enemy that exemplifies justice, but how we choose to live the day after." Repairing the broken world is not about what someone else might do, it is about us and how we bear the responsibilities given to us. Treating every human being as created in God's image is difficult. Feeling compassion for the stranger, because we were strangers, is not an easy choice. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) insists that the responsibility for healing is in our hands, if only we could overcome our own limitations: "Raba said: If the righteous desired it, they could be creators of worlds, as it is written, "But your iniquities have separated between you and your God [Isaiah 59:2]."

Today is the day after. Let us create a world of peace.