Yesterday two friends (one Tunisian and one British) separately made a point of congratulating me on the killing of Osama bin Laden. At the time, I was so taken aback I had no response for them but a mumbled deprecation. You see, I had never before pictured what I would do if someone congratulated me on the death of another person. However, since then, and since Sunday, I have spent plenty of time giving it thought.
For my two well-meaning friends and for all of you, my response is twofold:
First, my sensibilities rebel at the idea of celebrating death. Anyone’s death. The death of Osama bin Laden may be a time for sober relief and reflection, and even gratitude. But boisterous celebration? Self-congratulatory swaggering? Dancing in the streets? I cannot but consider it disturbing, unseemly, even obscene. Especially when I recall the all-too-similar scenes of dancing in the streets that we witnessed in certain quarters of the world following the awful events of September 11, 2001. What are we becoming? Down what dark path will this carry us?
My second thought flows from the first. In these ten long years since that terrible day, what kind of world have we created? America was originally founded on the principle that all men are created equal, possessors of the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These rights were protected by the critical assurance that the rule of law would stand inviolate above everyone, including those in power.
Somehow, we have lost touch with those fundamental principles. “All men” in current terms appears to have been effectually reduced to “Americans and other people we like” or at least “all men whom we do not suspect of being terrorists.” After World War II, those who had committed truly heinous crimes against humanity were given a fair trial at an international court. Now, human beings the world over are subject to being kidnapped, held indefinitely without charges, tortured, and even executed without due process of law. And not by any terrorist organization. By the government of the United States of America. To justify these lawless acts, the government has simply resorted to the redefinition of such terms as “war,” “torture,” and “enemy combatant.” At the same time, the American public has subtly, gradually been trained to believe that hate is patriotism, aggression is self-defense, and revenge is justice. Such redefinition of cherished universal ideals risks reshaping our society into the very image of terror and mercilessness that characterize our despicable foe.
Within America, our best safeguard for human rights and civil liberties is the time-honored system of checks and balances that our founding fathers built into the government. However, when we venture outside our own borders into the international arena, we suddenly involve the lives, not only of Americans, but of other nationalities as well. The other 6.6 billion people on this planet deserve the same protections afforded to “all men” under U.S. law. The United Nations, the Geneva Conventions, and other inter-governmental organizations and agreements serve as a sort of international system of checks and balances, which protect everyone. They demand that we respect the borders of other nations, give even war criminals a fair trial, and consider and defend the interests of all humanity.
When we cry out, “Al-Qaeda did not respect our borders,” or “Bin-Laden did not give 3000 Americans a fair trial,” we are right. That is exactly what makes America and the rest of the civilized world different from the evil and unprincipled terrorists we are fighting. When we decide to take matters into our own hands by sidestepping or contravening the international community, we risk putting ourselves in a dangerous no-man’s-land. Unilateral action too often alienates other nations, tramples sacred individual rights, and sooner or later also undermines our own country’s long-term interests. Ultimately, mutual respect, security, and peace are in everyone’s interest, and can best be achieved by setting and adhering to international norms, not by changing definitions to justify self-interested actions.
In a world where principles have been replaced by patriotic slogans and war has been perpetuated and extended until it becomes a normal fact of life, it is no wonder that we are losing basic respect and human decency. I see the deadly fruits of our current societal attitude not only in the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, but also in the reaction I have witnessed to his death. I say again, what have we become when a violent death becomes an occasion for celebration? Must we choose the dark road of hate, revenge, and war? Will we look in the mirror tomorrow and find the very thing we have sworn to destroy?
Or can we find the courage to put aside our prejudices, open our minds and hearts, and choose understanding, cooperation, and re-commitment to the principles upon which our nation and world are built?