Celebrating bin Laden’s death only puts us in the same camp

by Leah McClellan

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World Trade CenterThe fire of hatred and violence cannot be extinguished by adding more hatred and violence to the fire. ~Thich Nhat Hanh

What was your emotional response to the news that Osama bin Laden is dead?

Here’s how it went for me. I was half-awake, bleary-eyed, sipping coffee, and going through email before starting some work. As I quickly scanned Facebook, one post almost gave me a heart attack.

Osama and Obama look so similar (half-awake and sleepy-eyed, anyway) that I thought the president was dead. I looked again. Osama. Not Obama. Phew! That’s different.

I went downstairs to get some more coffee, then I buzzed through the online headlines and got on with my work. But not without processing a little of what I was feeling about bin Laden’s death.

I felt dark and morbid—some feeling of horror hovered around the edges. What next?

A faint sense of relief mingled in with something like worry or fear. But there was also distrust—when it comes to terrorism, I’m especially cynical about what I read or hear in the news.

But yes, Osama bin Laden is dead, as we all know by now. President Obama authorized it. American military forces—people, human beings just like you and me—stormed in, shot him in the chest, and blew part of his head off. Three other men and one of bin Laden’s wives were also killed. Fun.

Ding, dong the witch is dead. The wicked witch is dead!

I hear there’s been a lot of celebrating. Celebrate?

Not here, thanks. I can’t celebrate the killing and death of another human being because, no matter what the man has done or would conceivably be capable of doing in the future, killing people is—how shall I say this? I’ll stick with blatant simplicity.

Killing people is wrong. It’s not nice. It’s not a good thing, no matter who it is, and it wasn’t very pleasant for the guys who did it. It’s not a video game.

Killing is not a peaceful, loving, or kind thing. Killing someone is a very somber, serious matter.

If I celebrate or find any sense of joy in another human being’s death—no matter how sick or depraved that human being may be—what does that make me?

A huge bonfire comes to mind, a throng of merry-makers dancing round and round, a public stoning, wild laughter in the streets, the head of John the Baptist brought to Herodias’s daughter on a silver platter—to celebrate death makes me equally reprehensible and a part of the whole scene.

Celebrating bin Laden’s death only puts me in the same camp with him and his followers. It doesn’t make me a more peaceful person. It makes me one of them.

That’s not to say I disagree with killing Osama bin Laden. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been done. It’s my understanding that he would have been taken alive if that were possible, and I don’t know any better way to deal with the situation.

But let’s not get too comfortable. Violence doesn’t create peace, and I don’t see it as a time to celebrate.

I see this as a time to meditate or think on healing, compassion, and understanding. When I think of bin Laden and his followers, I don’t send hatred their way. I send thoughts of peace, love, and kindness hoping that they can catch a glimpse of it.

But if all they see in Americans is hatred and anger, how should they respond?

Back in September 2001, Thich Nhat Hanh was asked for his thoughts on bin Laden and the terrorist acts of 9/11:

We have to find a way to stop violence, of course. If need be, we have to put the men responsible in prison. But the important thing is to look deeply and ask, “Why did that happen? What responsibility do we have in that happening?” Maybe they misunderstood us. But what has made them misunderstand us so much to make them hate so much?

Former President George W. Bush calls bin Laden’s death “a victory for America, for people who seek peace around the world.”

Killing someone is not a peaceful act, it is not what peaceful people do, it does not engender peace, and it doesn’t bring back anyone who was killed. It doesn’t change what happened on September 11, 2001 or any other day.

It’s only the exact same action repeated.

Have you ever watched a tennis match? Back and forth, back and forth goes the ball and our heads. Pow! Bam! You’re out!

Back and forth it goes again. Bam! Now you’re out!

That’s what I’m seeing. I’m standing back, watching. I’m not a part of it. I’m not cheering anyone because I’m horrified no matter what the score is.

But it’s not a game. It’s human lives and serious business.

Where will it lead? President Obama and all Americans, including me, have blood on our hands. That’s nothing new. My question, though, is where will it lead? What’s next?

Even when violence appears to be the only practical, sensible way to halt another person’s acts of violence, let’s save the celebrations for peaceful events. Let’s stop the violence right there. Enough.

For additional reading:

Osama Bin Laden is Dead: A Mindful Response

Daily Connect: On Killing our Enemy

Osama bin Laden’s death: Reactions from a Buddhist or mindful perspective

Worth thinking about? Please Tweet and Share. Comments are always welcome.



Jeffrey Tang

I see what you’re saying, Leah, but I respectfully disagree on some points. I posted my response here if you’re interested: http://penvspaper.com/2011/on-vengeance-and-the-death-of-bin-laden/
Jeffrey Tang´s last blog post ..The amazing artwork of autism

Leah McClellan

Hi Jeffrey, Glad to hear from you even if you disagree on some points!

I checked out your response and tweeted :). I can see what you mean about the symbol versus the man. I’d have to really think on it, but in general I’d have to agree that not having the symbol around isn’t a bad thing. I do wish we could have taken the man who is the symbol alive, though! And I do hope that this violence, as you say, “hollows out the space in which peace can, hopefully, be built.” Interesting way to put it. Maybe it’s possible but I’d say we have to fill that void with a whole lot of peaceful actions instead of violent ones.

Debbbie Hampton

Well said. I know Osama orchestrated horrific acts which caused great pain and suffering for others. That is why the news of his death evoked many mixed feelings in me. What troubled me most is to see the hate expressed by others. This only contributes to the negativeness of the whole situation. To celebrate the death of another human being puts us on the same level that he was with no respect for another life.

Is death literally changes nothing. It does not bring back one life taken in the 9/11 attacks. In fact, it may bring about retaliation. Like the quote by Thich Nhat Hanh, we need to look at our participation in this whole cycle.
Debbbie Hampton´s last blog post ..Is The Wine Glass Half Full Or Half Empty

Leah McClellan

Hi Debbie,

Thanks for your input. I’m with you on the mixed feelings thing. I had to really get in touch with what I was feeling to sort it out, though I’ve had no sense of joy or celebration, and a feeling that was something like relief was fleeting. I have more dread of what’s next than anything. We definitely need to look at this a lot deeper. What is our part? How can we fix anything? It’s just like a relationship or marriage–what could possibly set things straight?



Well said Leah! I completely agree. We can’t celebrate the death of anyone and if history should teach us anything, it’s that violence begets violence. It never ends.

Finding peaceful alternatives is not easy and takes a higher level of awareness. I don’t know if our collective is capable of it yet. But it starts with messages like yours and the ones you linked to.
Manal´s last blog post ..In Praise of Simplicity in Life and the Universe

Leah McClellan

Hi Manal, So glad you stopped by. Yes, even on a personal level, violence begets violence. Someone has to stop fighting and do something different before it will end. Maybe people just don’t think in the long term. Maybe a lot of us think about the short-term value of vengeance and momentary gratification rather than what it means in the long run, looking at things historically and in the future. What’s next? The bin Laden supporters like vengeance too.



I do also think it’s wrong to celebrate anyone’s death, even if it’s someone evil like Bin Laden. It’s a shame to see any human being take a wrong time in the road of life, and end up resorting to killing others in order to gain meaning from life. It’s very very tragic.
Henway´s last blog post ..iPage FAQ

Leah McClellan

Hi Henway,

Very interesting point you make and how you worded it–well put. Yes, it’s all tragic, and that’s how I feel exactly. What made this man turn to things as he did? Babies are born good, innocent, full of innate goodness. But they (we) are shape-able, malleable. What hatred did he experience that pushed him down his own road of hatred? His religion doesn’t support his actions at all. Maybe in time we’ll find out.

Ken G

Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” I was saddened by the killing of Osama. I listen to point about justice being served for the deaths from 9-11 but the civilian deaths just last year in Afghanistan from our United States’ War on terrorism almost equals that. Nobody considers were entering our eleventh year of war in just Afghanistan and civilians have been killed in Iraq too. Then in our tough economic times when budget cuts are taking more away from citizens in our own country and what does our government do, bombs Libya putting we the people deeper in debt. Of course just like we were told Osama was an evil person we are told Libya’s leader is an evil person just like Saddam in Iraq was an evil person.

The part about this that disgusts me the most is all it takes is an accusation to move human minds into justifying hate. Our society has become so weak that they don’t even have the capability to see through just rhetoric. Nobody ever looked into what was the reason if he even did it, that Osama took down the Trade Center in the first place. Judgements were made at only looking at one side of the issue.

That’s what is really sad.

Leah McClellan

Hi Ken,

Excellent points, especially the one about civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq. Also the reference to rhetoric, though I’m not sure that people haven’t always been vulnerable to rhetoric or persuasive speeches or appeals to emotion cloaked in “factual” statements. Right after 9/11 when then-president Bush used the term “axis of evil” I just shook my head, knowing how the word “evil” inflames so many.

I wonder, what would peace leaders like the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh or non-violent communication experts like Marshall Rosenberg suggest that American leaders do? I know the general advice and techniques for peaceful conflict resolution, but what could have been done differently–realistically–in this situation or anything similar in the future?

Joe Niederberger

OBL should have been taken alive for so many reasons, but here is one that doesn’t even get one into a moral argument: he was supposedly the world greatest mastermind of terror. Killing him (and we know now that he was unarmed and there was no big “firefight” as first deceitfully described) means negligently and utterly wasting the greatest source of terrorism related intelligence the world could have had. Ultimately, we have to believe that being moral and thoughtful is also smart.

Leah McClellan

Hi Joe, Yet another great point. I thought of information he might possibly provide if he had been captured alive. But I wondered how anyone could handle talking to him in a way that could get anything out of him. I imagine he’s an extremely…hard to choose the best word. A sick individual–sick in the sense of slick, well-practiced in the art of deceit…I can only imagine. I was reading what Thich Nhat Hanh said about how he would handle talking with him in such a way that could be productive–and he’s the master of communication and listening–and it wouldn’t be easy even for him.

I think it would be like someone interviewing Hitler–who could stomach it? An American, anyway. Even the toughest drill sergeant type might not have the skills needed. Who knows?

Thanks for the input.

Joe Niederberger

Well, I think its just a kind of self-serving myth that these people (even Hitler!) are so different that they are species apart. We tend to forgive and forget our own atrocities (say, Vietnam – 2 million Vietnamese killed, many more maimed, etc. for what? Or take your pick of atrocities, there are many…) 6 million, 2million, ….
Its a trick of the mind to create these special categories for people. Glenn Greenwald just posted an interesting article on Bin Ladn “exceptionalism”.

Leah McClellan

Good point. No, they aren’t any different than us, and we aren’t any different from them. And it’s true–what’s the difference between terrorists slamming the WTC and the US bombing Nagasaki and Hiroshima? Vietnam? Wherever we’ve taken civilian lives? Big difference is that we’ve killed a whole lot more people than Bin Laden might be responsible for.

Seems like some self-righteousness going on. And maybe by thinking how difficult it might be to treat bin Laden in a humane way and communicate with him (or Hitler), well maybe that’s what they think of us. Then, to me, it comes down to “What can the U.S. do to set things right and stop fighting? Maybe we need to grow up or something?

Sharon Lippincott

Ultimately taking him alive would probably have resulted in a political situation as complex and prolonged as Viet Nam. Where would we keep him, at all and safely? How could he ever be tried? How many more billions would that cost? How many retaliatory attacks would be made on his place of imprisonment? Keeping him alive would only prolong the power struggles and debates. While I totally agree that celebrating is totally inappropriate, I’m relieved that the nation and world has been spared the spectacle of dealing with his living self. I’m relieved that this endless political quest is OVER! Let the next chapter begin.
Sharon Lippincott´s last blog post ..Beyond the Finger Pointing

Leah McClellan

Hi Sharon,

Thanks much for your take on things. It’s a good point that I hadn’t thought of. It would be an enormous expense in terms of finances and time spent and everything you describe if he were taken alive. I had only thought so far as the challenges of the face-to-face “handling” of him. Yes, it would be crazy. But you also made me think of something else. Let’s say that for the sake of (eventual) world peace, in theory, anyway, it’s best to not kill him. Let’s say that somehow we know that not killing him will help with world peace. What future costs would we then save on? Money-wise and human life-wise? What we did will have an effect–we reap what we sow, karma, chaos theory, whatever. Statistics show, for example, that the death penalty in the US has no positive effect on violent crime and murder–states with high rates of death penalty enacted also have the highest murder rates, often spiking after someone is put to death (last I looked, anyway). With that in mind, will bin Laden’s death create more peace or more violence?

I know what you mean, though, and I also feel a sense of relief, in a way. I also feel proud of our military forces that they were able to pull that off! Still, underneath the emotional reactions I’m also trying to look at logic and long-term goals of peace.

Thanks for chiming in.

Sharon Lippincott


I definitely see what you mean about the possibility of ultimately creating that Shift and share that hope. Meanwhile there is a balance point somewhere between being a doormat and a bully. When Jesus said to give a person our coat if they steal our shirt, I don’t think he meant we should hand over our whole wardrobe and run naked through the streets. Although it isn’t stated in so many words, my understanding is that we need to act from a peaceful heart, as in “let peace begin with me.”

Peace is based on mutual respect. When that’s lacking, it’s a tricky process to built it, and it must be expected as well as extended. Lacking a miracle, it’s built over time, bit-by-bit, from the ground up. Osama is a capstone and we lack the supporting structure for dealing with him alive.

My hope and belief is that when enough individual hearts are peaceful, the national and global ethos will shift, and decisions will be made differently. Soon. Very soon — PLEASE! But apparently not yet today. For now, at least they did bury him at sea within the period of time prescribed by Islam law, thus preventing anyone from capitalizing on the dead body or attempting to recover it, and they did refrain from showing macabre and desecrating photos. Perhaps this can be viewed as a (relatively) peaceful outcome that will provoke less ultimate violence than keeping him alive could have done. It’s certainly less violent than many things we could have done, and less violent than many things terrorists have done with hostages.

Questions and dialog such as you are stimulating will surely help shift a few more hearts. Let it be so! Thank you for bringing this up.
Sharon Lippincott´s last blog post ..Beyond the Finger Pointing

Leah McClellan

I agree, it’s all very tricky–and complicated. Lots of good points you make here. The only one I’d like to add to is the Christian reference: although the 10 commandments are from the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, Jesus did make mention of them and said to uphold them, and that includes “do not kill.” I’m not a Christian scholar, but I did study the Bible at one time rather in depth, though it’s been awhile. To the best of my knowledge and understanding (again, it’s not at a scholarly level and I’m no expert), that commandment is kind of high level.

I definitely agree with you about hope for the future and not so violent as it might have been. And I think that if it had to happen, it was handled with a degree of thoughtfulness or respect that’s worthwhile. I sure hope it helps or at least doesn’t kick off anything else, and that the world will get a bit calmed down. But we have to “be the change.”

So glad for your participation.

Joe Niederberger

After WWII – many high ranking Nazis were imprisoned and put on trial. It did not involve a morass like Vietnam. If Hitler himself could have been taken alive I strongly suspect he would have been treated the same. The moral compass of American society was different back then. I speak from, at least, intimate second hand experience — my father was at Omaha Beach in Normandy first wave and my mother lost her first husband at the Battle of the Bulge. They would scarcely believe the dominance of American macho-triumphalism sentiment today.

Much of the sadness I felt has to do with loss – the loss of America’s morality and also, the loss of my illusions about what America really is and has become, even in the short period of my lifetime. To a large extent though, America really never attained the actual moral standing that its highest principles and thinkers proclaimed. The Civil War was “won” and followed by a hundred years of Jim crow and lynchings. But since the Big Reaction to the Sixties, America has increasingly been moving away from even trying to pursue its higher calling and instead pays mere lip service to its ideals, and lip service seems to be all that’s required these days. Obama “justifies” his torture of Private Manning by talking about “the Rule of Law”. May those words burn on his lips. Then he orders the extra-judicial assassination of Bin Laden. The hypocrisy is stunning and stark, to all but Americans.

Leah McClellan

Hi Joe, Thanks again for your thoughtful input. You have some great points, though I’m not so sure things were any better in the good ol’ days–you do mention lynchings. What about hanging alleged witches in Salem back in the 1600s? Public hangings (black or white) up until…early 1900s? Still goes on in the south. Things done to natives, incredible cruelty to natives both men and women. Wife abuse, child abuse, rape–it’s prevalent today but it was just as prevalent in the past, possibly more so. Child labor–horrible conditions in factories during the industrial revolution and until laws were put into effect (early 1900s? Historical data doesn’t come to me very quickly when I don’t think of it often). Gold Rush brides. You name it. I think we talked about this before :)

I imagine we all have illusions, each and every one of us. We think we’re moral until we pause a moment and think about it or step back and look at history. It’s reality–we’re violent people. Despite this bin Laden thing, though (and I understand any argument that says we shouldn’t have done anything different) I think overall we’ve become a tad more civilized in many ways, but we sure do have a long way to go.

Joe Niederberger

Well, I beg to differ I think. There was a sense of striving towards ideals,
say 50 years ago, even while realizing the current state of imperfection, that is now largely lost. We could’ve gunned down the Nazi officials, like Obama would
have, but didn’t. Why? Something has to account for the difference in attitude.
Just as you said in your original post, there was more sentiment that we didn’t want to “be like” those we were fighting, there were ideals and principles (beyond “might makes right”.) Now that kind of sentiment finds itself in a very small minority. Why? It didn’t happen overnight on 9/11 either, I don’t think.

Leah McClellan

Well, I don’t know. Was the past any better than it is now? Did America strive for ideals 50 years ago more than they do now? I don’t know. Were American actions any better in the past than they were now? Based on what I know of history, I don’t think so. Women can own property now, for example, they can vote, and the same goes for African Americans. That’s an improvement right there but thinking of racial equality, there have been enormous improvements. I was watching a show on the Weather Channel last night concerning the Mississippi flood of the 1920s and how landlords held rifles at the heads of black sharecoppers to make them work on the levies for the general good, as if they were still slaves and didn’t have their own plot of land to work. That’s not any American ideal I’d want to have now, that’s for sure.

What I said in my post was that if we applaud or cheer the death of Osama bin Laden, as many people have, then we are no better than he is–in his camp. And that applies to hanging the Nazi war criminals as we did as well, even if they did get trials. That was pretty gruesome (I did some reading after you mentioned it; I had a class on that time period but it’s been awhile). One of the Nazis to be hung had to walk up while someone else’s body was still swinging. Nice. Not that the Nazi’s were “nice!” But how can we do gruesome things and yet, at the same time, punish others for it? That’s what I wonder.

Well we’d have to do some serious research if we really wanted to get into this, seems to me. Hard to evaluate things like “ideals” now and then without really sitting down and doing some proper research.

Joe Niederberger

Well, yes, 50 years ago I believe the arc of history had a majority of American’s still striving to live up to its highest ideals (just by a slim margin — there were many deeply opposed.) The civil rights movement, the environment movement. Woman’s rights! The very things you mention in your reply above were started and progressed back then! I’m not saying things were all perfect back then, I’m saying the *direction* of change was positive (that’s not the same thing).

Where are the *movements* today to progress even more so?
They exists for sure but are losing now, whereas back then they were winning. (Just for example, I could mention prominent environmentalists who are near despair these days.) These *directions* are expressions of society. Today we have movements to cancel hard won labor rights and social programs; movements to establish everlasting war as the norm. We are moving backwards. I don’t mean to suggest its a black-or-white thing. There were many problems with the Nuremburg trials, but flawed as they were it was still *better* than simply mowing the captives down (Churchill evidently wanted to!) The progressive movements were most definitely *not* supported by everyone, but in balance they progressed.

Its worth remembering that violence per-se is a social thing – there have been (are) societies that have lived tens of thousands of years without violence as we know it. Its not a biological necessity. I’m simply of the opinion that we as a society are regressing now, not progressing. In many ways its more hidden (e.g., we buy products made in degrading and violent conditions far away and out of sight and mind.) Many of our sins are sins of willful ignorance or apathy, but we are regressing nonetheless. I’m not alone on that point of view, but yes, you would have to read a bit and study the proposition to size it up for yourself.

Leah McClellan

Like I said, I really don’t know, and I say that simply because I’m not stating an opinion so much as trying to think of facts (I don’t really have an opinion on the matter, just ideas). That’s why I say this requires a lot of reading and research and comparisons. Sometimes the present looks pretty bad but, from my understanding of history, such as it is (I studied history as a minor in college plus, with my literature studies, I got a pretty good glimpse of conditions but I don’t claim to be a historian), I believe we live in a much more peaceful world, violent even as it is and desperately needing improvement. You make some good points, such as the fact that some of the movements I mentioned were begun some time ago. And I read your link, and it does make me think more on why more effort wasn’t made to capture bin Laden alive–I very much wish he had been. Good point on the environment–yes, that’s a mess.

And I agree 100% that violence is a social thing. It’s learned, not innate (which is the idea behind this blog).

Perhaps we have become a bit lackadaisical. It could be that we’re not evolving or making progress as we have been, and I don’t really disagree with you. I’m not expert enough to do that. I still hold, however, to the opinion that we’ve made a lot of progress when you look at a timeline that spans centuries. We’ve definitely got a long way to go. We’ve all got a lot of work to do!

Joe Niederberger

(I hadn’t seen this before posting my reply, but its relevant, so please forgive my add-on reply — there’s more than just me who thinks this way…)
See: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2011/05/13-10

Leah McClellan

Thanks for posting this, Joe! I took a look at it and it makes some good points. Thanks much for giving so much food for thought here.

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