"I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded, who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell." --General William Tecumseh Sherman
Relief. That’s the main emotion I experienced at hearing of the death of Osama Bin Laden a week ago Sunday night. Relief. That at long last one cog, the main cog, in the terrorist war network was gone, dead, buried at sea. No longer a living symbol for extremists eager to use religion and ignorance as a volatile mix to murder innocent people. Relief. That perhaps this death might signal the beginning of the end of the war in Afghanistan, a ray of peaceful hope in a dark ten year tunnel of struggle. Relief. That with Bin Laden’s death we as a nation might somehow find a way to move beyond the 9/11 atmosphere of fear and anger which has gripped us as a people, longer than any other war in our nation’s history. Relief. That with the demise of Bin Laden, a warped symbol of religiously inspired hatred, we Americans might begin to view our Muslim brothers and sisters as fellow citizens, not stereotypes, wrongly grouped together as one big threat.
But here is what I did not feel, not one bit: joy, as tens of thousands of others did (mostly the young) who poured out into the streets on the evening of May 1st to celebrate Bin Laden’s death. We all saw the photos and videos, people waving American flags, chanting “USA, USA!” or singing “Osama, hey, hey, hey, goodbye!” We read the headlines, especially one so raw: The New York Daily News trumpeting, “Rot In Hell”. In blog posts and interviews and analyses since that night, those death revelers have most often justified their actions with one central argument. They partied because the fear they’d had for almost ten tears was now gone. The fear they’d grown up with, first born on a sunny September morning, was now somehow magically lifted.
But still, I don’t get it, this dancing on the grave of an enemy. This communal spiking of the football in the end zone. Maybe it’s because of how the folks really affected by 9/11 responded. The people who lost a loved one on that day long ago. They didn’t jump for joy at the news of Bin Laden’s death. They wept. They had old wounds re-opened. They pushed away nosy reporters with “No comment” but those who would have been quickly forgiven for partying? They kept it somber.
There were no reports of soldiers in the field or on base doing high fives. Instead the day after Bin Laden’s death those soldiers did what they have always done. They carried on, quietly sacrificing, selflessly serving and doing their duty on our behalf. Even the pols kept it down low. They were thoughtful in their reactions, humble for the most part.
So here’s my take. There is something weird, disconnected, and plain wrong in so joyfully heralding the death of another. Even Bin Laden. Even the enemy. Even one person who seemed to embody evil human impulses so clearly. Instead my faith tells me that always, in the largest moral sense, war is just plain wrong and never to be celebrated. War may be morally justifiable in the short run: to defend the innocent, to protect the weak. But finally, no matter what the noble cause is; no matter how justified we are in our anger against the enemy, war is always hell on earth. War is a sin. War in trying to do the right inevitably does much wrong too. It takes down bystanders with cruel precision. It robs a nation of its youngest people. It consumes billions of dollars which otherwise could be used for the good. It distracts the body politic which should instead be working to improve the lot of a nation, to beat swords into ploughshares and trade guns for butter.
War is not a video game. War is not just standing up at a ballgame and singing the National Anthem as jets fly overhead: how hard is that for us? War should at least demand real sacrifice on the part of all the people whom the enterprise is carried out for. But the truth is, as one commentator noted, Americans since 9/11 have been asked to do little or nothing in the war on terror. Take off our shoes at the airport. Borrow billions on Uncle Sam’s credit card to pay for war and then pass on that cost to our children and grandchildren. How many of us actually know someone in the active military? Few of us I’d bet. The people who fight for us are for the most part anonymous, even forgotten.
So I say forget the communal celebrations, the revelry, the jingoistic chanting, the hollow triumphalism. It’s tacky. It’s tawdry. It’s ugly. Instead, together, let us all pray that Bin Laden’s death will lead to less death, less violence, less hatred and ultimately the end to the hellacious war we are fighting. Pray that someday soon as a nation, we’ll be able to welcome home our sons and daughters one final time and just get out of the nasty business of war. That day will be the day to party.
Not now. Not yet.