Bin Laden’s death after a decade on the run unloosed a national wave of euphoria in the USA mixed with memory of the thousands who died in the Sept. 11th 2001, from attacks by terrorists. Crowds celebrated throughout the night outside the White House and at ground zero in Lower Manhattan where the Twin Towers once stood. Thousands of students in many college towns spilled into the streets and set off firecrackers to mark the moment.
Killing unarmed terrorists
Although details of the raid remain sketchy, one can’t help wondering if the US could have tried harder to capture bin Laden alive and put him on trial rather than carrying out a summary execution. We don’t know to what extent if any there was any danger to the attacking forces bursting in on bin Laden of him detonating a hidden explosive device. The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Williams, said: “I think the killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling because it doesn’t look as if justice is seen to be done.” Few pundits have resisted the opportunity to ridicule him for this. Were they right to do this or was he right in what he said?
Just how should we react to terrorists? How should we deal with those who murder or incite murder?
We all need to live and work without fear in a fair and peaceful society. Those in authority must protect us from violence. The ideal of course is to prosecute such people in the courts of justice with a view to secure custody for all our protection. Many people believe that the threat of punishment sometimes deters violence and murder. Even if crimes of passion cannot always be deterred, as perhaps is the case with some terrorists, at least punishment teaches the rest what is unacceptable behaviour.
But punishment is also viewed as ‘them getting what they deserve’ – in other words, retribution. I can’t help wondering if the motive for the Americans trespassing on another country’s sovereign territory and engaging in assassination was rather like an act of revenge – a natural response but hardly a spiritual one. It smacks of getting one’s own back for wounded pride and asserting one’s dominance.
Hatred for terrorists
Spiritually speaking, hatred is not a healthy emotion – it burns up relationships, families and communities. And so it might be argued that responding to violence with violence just feeds violence and that Bin Laden is more dangerous dead than alive. After all Al-Qa’eda is no longer a mere organisation but a global franchise that now has a martyr helping recruitment to its cause. He will become a murdered unarmed hero in the eyes of those in the Middle East experiencing deep rage against the West.
Many justify assassination as ‘rough justice’ when the alternative of arrest and prosecution is not available – as a justifiable act of ‘war on evil’. But terrorists justify their violence as an act of war on the evil of the West.
Judging actions and character of terrorists
Are both sides not making a mistake? Is it not simplistic to see human behaviour only in terms of good and evil? According to this view we can say terrorism is evil but not conclude that a specific terrorist is evil. Why not? Well if we think about it, we realise that there are people who do not seem to believe that acts of terror are wrong. Mind you, they must realise nearly everybody believes this to be true. However, knowing what society says is wrong is different from understanding why it is wrong and acknowledging one should not do it. It is different again from wanting in one’s heart to turn away from wrongdoing. If a young person has grown up among adults who habitually fight members of other tribes and are proud of their warrior status, we can hardly expect him or her to realise that such behaviour is really bad even if one is not caught.
If we brand someone as evil, we neglect our own faults. We get so taken up with condemnation that we neglect what it is about our own behaviour that requires examination, like the decadence in parts of Western culture, our uncritical support for Israel against the Palestinians, and our support of Arab autocrats for the sake of oil.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems