The Death of Osama Bin Laden: A Personal Reflection
When the alert tone sounded and the message scrolled across the screen on WNBC-TV last night at 10:18 p.m., it literally stopped me in my tracks. I sat down on the couch preparing to hear an announcement from the President, the substance of which turned out to beyond my greatest imagination. Libya, I thought, or a domestic death of historical or political significance, or maybe even a statement about the White House Journalists Dinner, or even more ridiculously but not unlikely, something in response to the recent claims that emerged that Obama’s long form birth certificate had been doctored with Adobe Illustrator. Never did it occur to me that the news would be about Osama Bin Laden. But I couldn’t wait for the President – it was a very long five minutes. So I switched from awaiting the suspenseful ending of “Celebrity Apprentice” – noting the irony of interrupting Trump’s show with an announcement by the President – and switched on Fox News. There I caught the tailend of a comment from Geraldo Rivera hypothesizing that the news had to be bigger than Libya. Without any source, Rivera predicted: Bin Laden has to be subject of the announcement. Within seconds, he receives and reads from a producer’s note citing a senior administration official who advised that “Bin Laden is dead.”
Geraldo starts to cheer. The expression on his face changes from sober to smiling. I stand still, unable to speak, in the middle of my living room. I had the tangible experience of not knowing what to think or what to feel. Very soon I was transported back to the unfortunately familiar but very uncomfortable and lonely feelings of the dark night of 9/11/2001. At first, I did not realize that was where I was going, but after several hours of watching the television coverage – much of which preceeded the President’s formal remarks which did not take place until 1 and ½ hours later than announced -- it was when I made the mistake of switching the channel to CNN where the voice of Wolf Blitzer once again kept me company through the dark night.
Early on in the night and as the hours wore on and the media coverage of this historic moment filled with contrasting images of Bin Laden and celebratory crowds of young Americans, many of them military, outside the White House and in Times Square (NYC), I found myself weary and wary but not able to celebrate or rejoice.
I get it. I get that people feel relieved that an elusive mass murderer was, assuming this news to be true, finally captured and put to death. “He is no longer our problem,” as some would comment. I get the pride for our troops who daily put themselves in harm’s way so that we can live more safely and without thinking minute-to-minute about the dangers that roam the world. I get the pride and gratitude for the amazingly courageous and selfless men (I assume it was an all-male team) who carried out the operation that ended Bin Laden’s reign. I get the sigh of relief, the sense of closure, the feelings of vengeance and vindication. September 11, 2001 changed our lives and for some of us in more direct ways.
The criminal has been caught and his life extinguished. But the story doesn’t end there, neither do the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions, and the realities. Global terrorism and especially Al Qaida remain real threats. Experts say that retaliation – perhaps in multiple forms – will be forthcoming. As vulnerable as we are to such a strike, perhaps though even greater is the potential strike to our human spirit. There is understandable celebrating today, but there is great risk in the collective rejoicing over the death of another human being as evil as his actions were. When I awoke this morning, I realized that I had witnessed what it must have been like when the world learned that Adolf Hitler was dead. Then I quickly learned that he, too, was announced dead on May 1st. The ironic coincidence is not lost on me – As egregious and reprehensible as the acts of Hitler and Bin Laden were, they did not act alone. As anti-Semitism remains alive today, the anti-American ideology and hatred that drove one time ally Bin Laden permeates the global politic. Every enemy that the U.S. has at one time was an ally, someone we trusted, sometimes even someone we followed. That is a reality not to be ignored.
More tangible than that is the reality that there is a moral dimension to this moment. When the President noted that the military operation to take down Bin Laden had commenced at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, that irony was not lost on me either: In many Catholic Churches, people were, at that exact hour, commemorating the Feast of Divine Mercy with the communal praying of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. Voices raised in chant-song, “For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world!” Repeated ten times, these faithful implore the relentless Mercy of the Divine. Perhaps it was the Mantle of Divine Mercy that spread out over the military men involved in the operation. Likely it was, with not a single American life lost despite a helicopter mishap. Not to suggest that the mission was a Divine Crusade, the question of Divine Mercy remains.
As a Christian, as a Catholic, I am called both to Mercy and to forgive as I wish to be forgiven, to forgive as Jesus Himself forgave. I am also called to love as Jesus loved. Neither call is easy; at times, both seem impossible and sometimes, especially in the face of incomprehensible tragedy, wrong. Still, they are the call we share and rightly so because ultimately the inability to forgive and the act of hating harms the person who holds those feelings equally if not more than the person at whom the feelings are directed.
The question of mercy and forgiveness, in relation to Hitler and Bin Laden, can be easily dismissed as abstract lofty ideals, the ponderings of someone disconnected or far removed from the realities of the atrocities both men masterminded. (Imagine if either had put his God-given intelligence to the greater good what could have been achieved, but I digress.) But as an invisible survivor of 9/11/2001, I think the questions of mercy and forgiveness are even greater and (yes) very nuanced for people like me, people who live and carry the hidden scars of surviving a catastrophic terror attack.
In May 2008, I (finally) had the blessing of meeting and listening to Sister Helen Prejean, csj, the inspiration for the reknown film, “Dead Man Walking.” After Helen’s talk, I had the privilege to share a sacred moment with her and told her that I thought the transformation of spirit that I already was experiencing through the encounter with her was preparing me for something. At the time, I thought it was outreach to death row inmates through letterwriting prison ministry. However, just three months later, I learned that what I was being changed for was six weeks of jury service on a very complex gang-related murder trial. While the story of that jury experience would rightly be the subject of another piece, the one relevant point is that as Juror #x, I sat looking face to face on a daily basis with admitted murderers who I realized were also very broken grown boys who like me were also made in the image of God. They weren’t born evil; their lives, their choices, and the focus of their intelligence and energies were grossly misplaced; their own sense of self-worth was either non-existent or misconstrued. Sparing a vivid description of the deeds to which some of them admitted, suffice to say that they committed horrendous humanly unforgivable deeds, some probably in the context of their testimonies. But in reflecting back on that experience and the insights I gained I was reminded that God’s Mercy is infiniteless; God does not withhold Mercy and Forgiveness from those who seek it. As the priest underscored at my nephew’s eighth grade graduation, “Graduates, hear me loud and clear: There is nothing, ASBOLUTELY NOTHING, you could ever do that would make God stop loving you. Don’t forget that.”
So, unconditional love, forgiveness and mercy for (Hitler and) Bin Laden? Ultimately the answer to this question is God’s to give, which once again makes me thankful that I am not God. But it’s a question that I cannot ignore or dismiss because I believe it is rightly also posed to every person of faith, to each of us, especially to those injured by him. Theologically speaking, God never stops loving anyone, just as God doesn’t stop loving us even when we sin; forgiveness and mercy from God are equally available to all who seek it and will receive it. Some theologians have even hypothesized about Judas Iscariot’s place in heaven – and he turned Jesus over to death for thirty pieces of silver and then ended his own life with a noose. Two thoughts continue to resonate in my mind as I grapple with these questions: “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hurt you.” “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” These are two lofty aspirations, two heavy crosses when I think about putting them into practice. In the days to come, the challenge for me is whether I can express love for those who have hurt me regardless of whether they have repented or made me whole. The challenge is whether I can hope for God’s mercy on those who have hurt me when they face final judgment. The challenge is whether I can forgive those who “trespass against me” in order that I, too, can be so forgiven.
On September 11, 2001, as I struggled with the experience of the terror attack, I instinctively went to call my Dad to talk things over, but he had died in December 1998. Today’s another one of those days when I need to call my Dad, but this time I already know what he’d say. My father often reminded us that self-righteous Christians might be very surprised to encounter Hitler or any other former evildoer in Paradise; he was not exonerating such evil acts but so deep was his confidence in the potential of God’s Mercy. My Dad was no pushover, but he also imparted a deep awareness that we are called to model our lives after the heart of God.
As the reality of Bin Laden’s death is driven home by countless news stories and images across all forms of social media, I realize that I am struggling with how to feel, what to think, and what to pray about this man whose actions permanently scarred me and interrupted the life I had been living. He took from me something that can never, regardless of my own efforts, be restored to pre-9/11/2001 existence. He took these same things and more from thousands, arguably millions, of others, too.
Ultimately, unconditional love, mercy, forgiveness, and justice for a soul are God’s. But I, too, have a part to play. So do you. Will we respond as we are called? Will we work to be able to respond as we are called? These real questions are put to us anew today. How will we respond?