The news of bin Laden’s demise was shocking and the American reaction was explosive. Commentators have been quick—all too quick—to attempt to reorient us, to give us perspective beyond the raw event. They would have us look past this event and understand the death as a “merely symbolic victor[y]—nothing tangible, nothing concrete [or] substantial,” and ultimately think about the real question of how we should conduct the broader war on terror. Some go a step—several steps— further and ask us to see through this event and to notice that “…we’re being helplessly, recklessly compelled by social media into…furious, spontaneous, and collective responses,” and that we are simply “caught in [a] fervor of the we-finally-caught-the-bad-guy” media narrative.
It seems that the event is all too simple for these writers, and that what really deserves reflection lies fully outside it. Perhaps these writers grasp something that I don’t, but I’d like to naively suggest that the event itself merits some thought.
The Dalai Lama recently gave bin Laden’s fall some consideration: “He said in the case of bin Laden, his action was of course destructive and the September 11 events killed thousands of people. So his action must be brought to justice…But with the actor we must have compassion and a sense of concern, he added.”
Between the lines we can read: Evil men do not exist, there are only evil actions; man is infinitely redeemable. Men’s actions take their bearing by good and evil, but men themselves are somehow beyond these fundamental moral categories.
History seems to verify this. We’ve learned that supreme moral judgment, when applied to men, has often rationalized the basest cruelties, and that the idea of pure evil has often been used to dehumanize those different from us. To judge a man as either absolutely good or evil is to cast him as either a god or a beast.
If nothing else it seems bin Laden himself has taught us the dangers of orienting and judging the world of men by reference to the sublime good and infernal evil. It was only by reference to what he took to be the superb good (divinity) that he was able to justify and take pleasure in the destruction of 3,000 human lives on September 11. Bin Laden’s life—in his own view—was aimed at the pursuit of the good.
It is all the more striking, then, that many took refuge in those absolute ideals upon his death. Many were quick to point out that it is simply immoral and depraved to take pleasure in and celebrate the death of another human being. Some sought to remind us that the fact that his capture might have been the result of intelligence obtained through torture in no way justifies these inhumane methods. Still others contend that if he was unarmed (as some reports now claim), then the justice of his death should be rightly called into question. In short, they pointed to that unyielding maxim: To return harm with a harm is always wrong, and justice cannot be founded upon injustice.
Bin Laden’s life and death point to a fundamental tension: To judge men by the unrelenting light of the ideal is dehumanizing, but in the absence of that light, we are without orientation. History has shown how perilous it is to seek to mold, shape, and judge our world directly by absolute moral principles, since if the greatest good is known, then there is no cost too high to pay to achieve it. All the same, to abandon those principles would mean to abandon the bearings by which we act in the world.
Class of 2012