On Not Rejoicing Over Bin Laden’s Death

The Babylonian Talmud gets us part of the way there:

Certain brigands were in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood used to trouble him greatly, and he prayed that they would die.  Beruriah his wife said to him, “What is your opinion?” [i.e. on what text do you base your prayer]?”  [He replied,] “because it is written [Psalms 104:35], “May sinners vanish from the earth.”  [She responded,] “Does it say ‘sinners’?”  [No!]  It says ‘sins.'” [End evil, not evil doers.]  “Furthermore [she continued], go down to the end of the verse: ‘The wicked will be no more.’  Since their sinning will stop, will there ‘no longer be sinners’?  Rather, you should pray that they repent, then ‘the wicked will be no more.”

Rabbi Meir prayed for mercy upon them, and they repented.

(Berachot 10a)  I read Beruriah’s point as being that evil is not simply the thing that is encased in those people over there.  Obviously, Bin Laden was about as evil as you are going to get, but evil is in all of us, and rejoicing at the death of the wicked carries us into thinking that when we kill evil people we kill evil.

An obvious point?  Perhaps, when I put it that way.  But I can’t help thinking about the way the culture treats evil.  My daughter is 6 years old.  She watches Disney movies.  In Disney movies — and really in Hollywood movies generally — the whole conceit is about 1) distinguishing the “good guy/girl” from the “bad guy/girl”; and 2) rooting for the former to triumph over the latter, which in the movies is eventually what happens.  And we rejoice.

But that is not the way evil lives.  It is more than a bad guy “out there”; it is a parasite.  It destroyed Bin Laden, and it can destroy us by making us more like Bin Laden.  Not like him, of course: but closer to him than we would want to admit.  And of course we can do a lot of evil things because we know that we are “the good guys.”  And how do we know that we are the good guys?  Because we know where evil is: it is in Bin Laden.  We are not in Bin Laden, and thus we are not evil.

The writer of Proverbs knew this 2,000 years ago.  Chapter 11, Verse 10: “When the wicked perish, there is jubilation.”  But Chapter 24, Verses 17-18:  “do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles; lest the Lord see it, and be displeased.”  In other words, people do precisely what displeases God.  Evil is inherent in our nature, not just someone else’s.

So while we can be happy that Bin Laden is dead, we should not rejoice about it. Let us be content that, in this case, justice was done, but not rejoice.  If we rejoice, we will meet the enemy, and he will be us.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

21 thoughts on “On Not Rejoicing Over Bin Laden’s Death”

  1. “Deserves [death]! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them?
    Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

  2. I think you are being a bit unfair to Hollywood. The central character of the Star Wars series, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, involved precisely the moral complexity you charge Hollywood with ignoring. So does William Munny in Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. Such films may be in the minority, but they were mainstream commercial successes.

  3. Indeed, this whole event calls for mixed emotions. Killing OBL is a legitimate policy aim. The State has a right to protect its citizens from harm, and OBL is actively engaged in planning such harm. And its legitimate to feel happy, in a sense, that a legitmate task gets done. So to feel happy or pleased that OBL was killed is not per se bad.

    But the specific sense of joy over another human being’s demise – that’s where we must be very careful to guard our hearts. Us Catholics were treated Sunday to the Feast of Divine Mercy, which reminds us that while God judges, he also aches to pour out his mercy on sinners. Know only that God is perfect justice and perfect mercy. Figuring out where the borderline is between those two attributes of God is not something us mortals are especially good at.

    Solzhenitsyn’s often-repeated statement bears repeating again here:

    “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
    — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956)

    P.S. I get your point about Disney movies. As a Star Wars fan (I’m a 37 year old American male – so sue me) I’ve always been impressed by the fact that such a remarkably successful piece of pop culture turned on a storyline where the hero was frequently and seriously tempted to devolve into evil, not because he lusted after personal gain or power, but because he was prone to anger in defense of his loved ones. And where the villain was ultimately redeemed from complete destruction by choosing, in the final hour, love over hatred.

  4. It seems reasonable to suspect that most of those folks you are tsk-tsking grew up outside of a faith tradition that employs the Babylonian Talmud, so your argument which relies so heavily on it may not resonate. This post tends to imply that evil has some sort of physical, created existence, which, if true, would be an illogical and contradictory product of a totally benevolent creator. Augustine already covered all this and pretty well came up with the best working definition of evil as being the loss or absence of good.

    I think it is prissy and frankly kind of insulting to describe those spontaneous celebrations at Lafayette Square and Ground Zero as arising from the absence of good or a metastasizing tumor of evil. These lectures from the squeamish are rather tiresome. Did these types of celebrations erupt after Saddam was captured? If not, (and I don’t remember any, though I could be wrong), it seems that there’s a pretty good chance that these are a one and done type of celebration. Maybe you’d get more out of quoting those who were there to find out what was going on, rather than an ancient document.

    Arendt describes the banality of evil, which seems like it existed in spades in the compound at Abbottabad. That’s where the real lesson of evil is from this episode, that a man who used great inherited wealth and certain talents to perverted ends left him trapped in a large prison of his own making.

  5. >>”Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

    Tolkein, Lord of the Rings. Gandalf speaking of Gollum.

  6. Diclaimer: Google may not actually be your friend.

    Rather, The Google does not have a ‘wisdom’ button.

  7. This atheist finds complete sympathy with the Talmud here. It is rooted, I think, in an ancient human – likely mammalian (at least) cognition of empathy. We make a model of the world in our heads, and thus are able to see ourselves in others, and visa versa. I don’t see why any among us could not have just as easily been led towards the evil that Bin Laden was, given the proper environment. And to the extent that we could not have been, to what special power do we owe that privilege? I find the assumption that we would are somehow “above” depravity frankly narcissistic.

    This insight to me is the key humility that man must learn, especially if we want to create the heaven on earth we are capable of. It is here where retribution dies, and forgiveness is born. Utility will always be what it is – but we can be something more *if we work at it*. The Talmud – like all great religious teachings – calls us to do just this.

  8. “Hate the sin and love the sinner” is a precept I have always thought distinctively Christian, what Christians do when they’re being their best Christian selves and everyone else might learn from. Thanks, Jon, for tracing it back.

  9. Jonathan–

    Rejoicing? No worries. Most of us are still joicing for the first time.

  10. “In Disney movies — and really in Hollywood movies generally”

    It’s fashionable to blame Hollywood for this, but the real villains here are high school English classes, at least as they are currently constituted.
    It is in high school English classes that we are told that the essence of tragedy (ie the right way to do it) is character flaws ala Shakespeare, rather than situational ontological ala Greek tragedy (or, for that matter, the Icelandic sagas). Should we be surprised that this supposedly sophisticated (but actually ridiculously simple-minded) view of the world gives us simple-minded movies, simple-minded journalism, and simple-minded politics. After all — things happen because of the flaws of individual actors — so view the world in terms of its actors and whether they are good or evil. No need to consider situational issues, historical consequences, best of a bad choice, etc etc.

    I’m quite serious here — I really do think that high school English does an astonishingly evil job on future citizens, all under the guise of imaging it’s making them better people.

  11. I think that there are evil people, but they are very very rare. But people who commit evil are very very common–almost all of us, from time to time.

    I can’t consider Osama bin Laden as one of the very few evil people. He mostly tried to do good as he saw it. Like most of us, he was blind to the evil he did, or thought it was justified by the good (as he saw it) that he tried to do. Yes, he was delusional, and his delusions created great evil. But the difference between Osama bin Laden and the readers of this blog are of degree, not kind. Osama was an enemy and I’m happy he’s dead. But his great evil was in his deeds, not his essence.

    Who is evil in essence, rather than deed? You need somebody with few delusions, who consciously chooses evil. Iago is one, at least in literature. Roy Cohn might have been one in life. Maybe Ted Bundy. It’s an exclusive club.

  12. Whoa.

    Consciously planning, financing and ordering actions intended to result in the death of hundreds or thousands of human people doesn’t qualify as a conscious choice of evil? If Bundy qualifies, how can Osama bin Laden not?

  13. Dennis: so every military officer who has commanded troops in battle has consciously chosen evil?

    Ebenezer: not so sure about your “few delusions” qualification. At some point you’re truly evil even if you delude yourself that you’re acting for the greater good. And there’s an argument to be made that openly choosing evil is a sign of diminished capacity…

  14. Paul,
    You make two good points on me (not to mention your knockout of Dennis). One of them I think I can rebut: that openly choosing evil is a sign of diminished capacity. If Roy Cohn had diminished capacity, the term “diminished capacity” loses its meaning. You might be right for Ted Bundy, and are probably right for Jeffrey Dahmer.
    Your other point is a poser. I think that there is a distinction between active self-delusion and the kind of ordinary delusion that all of us suffer from. Active self-delusion is consistent with choosing evil; you’re right. Ordinary delusion is not, even ordinary self-delusion.
    It’s hard to distinguish the two, and that’s all the more reason I don’t like to impute evil to a person rather than their deeds. I am not sure if bin Laden was actively self-delusional. I’d have to know a lot more about his thought processes with regard to the propriety of suicide bombing under Sharia and similar matters.

  15. There is an old Buddhist meditation/blessing that goes like this:

    May I be filled with loving kindness;
    May I be well;
    May I be peaceful and calm;
    May I be happy.

    Once you apply that to yourself, you then do it for a loved one. Then you do it for an acquaintance, someone you do not have special feelings for. Now it gets harder. Do it for someone you really do not like very much (your idiot boss, for example). Now here’s where it really gets tough. Do it for someone truly evil, such as Osama bin Laden. Work on it. Once you can do that and really mean it, think about what that means. If the blessing really worked, if your wish was granted, the hated person would no longer be hate-worthy, because he would be what you blessed him to be. Problem solved. Does it really work? I don’t know, but it is a great attitude adjuster.

  16. Gary, that’s great. Honestly though, I don’t know how people survive *without* such an approach. I don’t know. I was raised to always try and see the good in people so maybe I’m just used to it. But when I see the anger that torments so many who allow themselves to choose not to forgive, and to dwell in frustration upon the phantasm that is “evil”, I take comfort in my belief that we are all “nature’s children”.

  17. Ebenezer, I don’t think I’m knocked out at all.

    At its best war is a morally ambiguous endeavor. If you think what Osama bin Laden’s planning and implementing the order to implement the September 11 attacks is equivalent to a Eisenhower and his staff implementing Operation Torch … well, words fail me.

  18. Ebenezer: I think you’re right. Perhaps “diminished capacity” is the wrong term; it’s clear to me that something is broken in people who consciously chose evil, but whether that brokenness is of a kind that diminishes their responsibility as moral agents is really the question, and I don’t know how to answer it.

    Meanwhile, I’m interested in your calling out of suicide bombing in particular as a questionable proposition under sharia — I’ve always been a little confused by the characterization of suicide bombing as a cowardly act. Clearly in wartime combatants undertake missions whose probability of survival is arbitrarily close to zero (or intended to be so, as in the kamikaze bombers) without necessarily being considered to act any less morally than combatants who act to kill the maximum number of enemy combatants or civilians without risk to themselves.

    As far as I can tell the distaste (to put it mildly) for suicide bombers has more to do with the “false flag” nature of their actions — the fact that they behave as noncombatants until the moment that they attack. But even that doesn’t entirely get at the issue, because unlawful combatants who open fire with guns or plant car bombs seem to be held in marginally less opprobrium. I think that ultimately the particular nastiness attributed to suicide bombers may be about the fact that at the same time that they act, they place themselves beyond retribution by the people they attack.

Comments are closed.