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Friday, May 06, 2011

Them vs. Us

I've been bothered by all the chest thumping and 'USA' chanting that has been going on over the death of Osama Bin Laden, but I haven't been able to pinpoint exactly why.

Until, that is, I read the following on Elisson's blog (which was quoted from still another fine blog):

"I don’t care how heinous the slain monster be, people who dance when blood is spilt have a little bit of their soul missing. Justice is grim stuff, and should be treated with respect."

That's really it, isn't it? 

The problem isn't so much that a man was killed.  I trust history to sort out who was right and who was wrong.  The problem is that civilized people don't celebrate death.  Victory, yes.  But not death.

I'm sure you have all seen that classic WWII-era news photo of the crowds celebrating in Times Square... the one where the sailor is kissing the nurse.
Those people weren't celebrating the fire-bombing of Tokyo.  They weren't celebrating the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  They were celebrating V-J Day (Japan's surrender).  It may seem like a fine distinction to some... but that fine distinction is what preserves our humanity.

I get upset when the Palestinians find death worth celebrating.  But given the celebratory atmousphere over OBL's death, I have to wonder if we are really all that different.

While thinking about this, I was reminded of a passage from Ambrose Bierce's excellent short story 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge' which describes the preparations for a Civil War era military execution of a spy, by hanging:

"Excepting the group of four at the center of the bridge, not a man moved.  The company faced the bridge, staring stonily, motionless. The sentinels, facing the banks of the stream, might have been statues to adorn the bridge.  The captain stood with folded arms, silent, observing the work of his subordinates, but making no sign. Death is a dignitary who when he comes announced is to be received with formal manifestations of respect, even by those most familiar with him.  In the code of military etiquette silence and fixity are forms of deference."

The genius of Bierce is that his words ring true even today. 

Here was a group of Union soldiers about to hang a man who was caught spying for the Confederacy.  He wasn't just the enemy... but one of the most insidious forms of enemy imaginable in times of war; a non-uniformed spy on his way to burn a strategically important bridge.  Today we'd call him a terrorist. 

Yet because death was involved, they observed the goings on with respect and deference... not celebration. 

I suppose that is the primary difference between an execution and a lynching.

Posted by David Bogner on May 6, 2011 | Permalink


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There's probably not a nice way to say this and pardon me for offending anyone who celebrated in the Streets of America but it seems like a response of the lesser intelligent to me. Probably because so much of the celebrations were carried on by raucous college students who were acting like their football team just won a big game. Be surprised, be glad, go read the paper for more info....but to feel giddy? I seriously doubt most of those people went home and immediately logged on to read as much news as they could get their hands on.

Posted by: Benji Lovitt | May 6, 2011 8:54:35 AM

Thank you for (once again) saying out loud what I’ve been thinking since I heard the news.

Posted by: wogo | May 6, 2011 10:07:35 AM

"I get upset when the Palestinians find death worth celebrating. But given the celebratory atmosphere over OBL's death, I have to wonder if we are really all that different."

You've hit the nail on the head here, David.

When I see groups of people jumping up and down to celebrate someone else's tragedy, my feelings are a little stronger than yours, I feel disgust. Particularly when the firing of guns into the sky is an addition.

To see Americans acting similarly, made me sad.

Posted by: chairwoman | May 6, 2011 11:09:57 AM

Maybe I didn't play close enough attention to what was going on, but isn't there a difference between, "USA! USA!" and "Ding! Dong! The Witch is dead"? - The killing of Bin Laden [i]was[/i] a victory over a very elusive (and apparently influential) enemy. I'd like to believe that the cheers would have been as loud if he had been captured.

The problem with the Palestinian cheers is that the death of civilians cannot be considered a victory - the civilians were [i]by definition[/i] not a real threat. UBL was a threat, both as a symbol and as somebody who was still coordinating Al Qaeda activities.

The Bierce case is quite different, since the victory, if any, came with the capture of the spy, not his execution.

Posted by: Russell Gold | May 6, 2011 2:48:35 PM

Aliza and I have been having a difficult time dealing with the axiom Binfol oyvecha al tismach.. when you enemy falls you should not rejoice. My mental gymnatics separates a killing (however justified) and happiness that a threat is gone.

Posted by: Aharon | May 6, 2011 3:53:02 PM

I liked this editorial about the same subject you raise: http://news.yahoo.com/s/csm/20110502/cm_csm/381112

Posted by: JDMDad | May 6, 2011 5:10:27 PM

This is vaguely off-topic, but as a (possibly) interesting sidelight, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” was made into a short film (“La rivière du hibou” in France in 1962. This film, which won awards for best short subject at both the 1962 Cannes film festival and the 1963 Academy Awards, was eventually brought to American television - as an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” It was one of the last episodes of TZ to be broadcast and was never included in the TV syndication packages, but I saw it in 1964 when it was first shown. It was brilliant... and unforgettable.

Posted by: Elisson | May 6, 2011 6:38:57 PM

i can't say that i agree with you on this one. i see a pretty fundamental difference between the americans celebrating the death of evil people, and the palestinians celebrating the death of good people.

Posted by: J | May 6, 2011 9:11:02 PM

Coverage of the US reaction to the death of Bin Laden in our neck of the woods has been rather brief. However, I had the news turned on the day it happened and was preparing dinner in the kitchen (couldn't see the TV). I heard a lot of chanting, but couldn't discern what was being chanted, and my blood ran cold. I actually said out loud "Not another revolution!" and had a flashback of the pictures from Tehran with crowds baying for the hostages in the late 1970's. I was genuinely shocked when I saw it was footage from the US.

Posted by: Kiwi Noa | May 6, 2011 11:30:04 PM

There is one distinction that bears remembering: Hirohito surrendered. Osama Bin Laden did not. That is why the celebrations happened on VJ day, not in 1985 when Hirohito died.

Posted by: Omri | May 7, 2011 11:41:28 PM

Everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion, so here's mine. As an American I am insulted by your comparisons. We don't celebrate the death of innocent people, and we don't purposely target innocent people. OBL was the mastermind behind the murder of 3,000 innocent AMERICANS. New Yorkers, who unlike you and me bore the brunt of the carnage, danced in the street when the man who turned their lives upside down got what he deserved. Who are you or anyone else to judge them?

Posted by: babawawa | May 8, 2011 8:49:27 AM

Strange post, I must say. Not only was he responsible for nearly 3000 deaths, but most Americans worried that he was planning more carnage. To many, especially those directly affected by 9/11 (I would not say I was directly affected, but my practice lost 4 parents of patients that day), he was the personification of evil. Tell me Jews didn't cheer when Hitler died in his bunker. OBL advocated the murder of Americans wherever they might be found.
To many, right or wrong, his death symbolized the end of an era of fear. It wasn't just revenge. I wouldn't think that would be too hard to understand.
As you well know, unlike conventional war, there is no official endpoint to a terrorist campaign. But to many, this is as close as they're going to get.
Yes, many cheered. The masses tend to do that. Where I live, some people went and laid wreaths at Ground Zero.
Works for me.
Works for me.

Posted by: Larry | May 9, 2011 2:24:00 AM

The problem is that civilized people don't celebrate death. Victory, yes. But not death.
Exactly my feelings.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | May 9, 2011 5:21:43 PM

It's a fine line.

The day after Osama was killed, my co-teacher and I discussed what to say to our 4th- and 5th-grade students. Basically, we said that it was a good day because a very evil man was taken out of the world, but that death itself is not something to celebrate or be joyful about. I pointed out how we only say half-Hallel for much of Pesach - because as happy as we are about our redemption from Egypt, we are sobered by the necessary loss of Egyptian lives - despite the fact that they were our enemies.

Basically, I am very happy that Osama is dead. But the whole pep-rally "USA! USA!" stuff was juvenile and inappropriate. Our team didn't just win the Super Bowl, for crying out loud.

Posted by: psachya | May 9, 2011 11:37:55 PM

Read this the other night, and have been thinking about it for the past couple of days. While I agree with you on the one hand that the celebration of death is the mark of an uncivilized people, I'd also ask what you would consider a civilized response in this case? As pointed out earlier, there is no real end to this war so there will be no ticker-tape parades, no celebrations a la WW-II, and no return to the "normal" of pre-9/11. And I ask that understanding that Israel must deal with this very threat and reality every day, so I do not ask it lightly. While it may be unseemly, it was also a collective "sigh of relief" that this particular threat is now gone from our world, and that maybe now "normal" (like celebrating a Super Bowl win) was just a little possible.

Posted by: Mark | May 10, 2011 6:40:57 AM

Psachya beat me to the Haggadah analogy, so I'll just say thanks for posting this. My feelings precisely.

Posted by: bratschegirl | May 11, 2011 10:31:22 AM

While I agree that in general death and killing should be treated with dignity, I have to say that your analysis seems flawed to me. There's a great difference between a spy on his way to destroy a strategic target and the wanton murder of innocents, which is what Bin Laden caused. There's a difference between reluctantly deciding to kill innocents along with the guilty when you believe it necessary (such as at Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and killing a terrorist enemy alone, who deliberately targeted innocents. Keep up the great posts, though, as my wife and I really appreciate reading them with our morning coffee.

Posted by: Shalom in NJ | May 11, 2011 2:06:32 PM

While I initially found the "USA, USA" chants distasteful, I cam to realize that the celebration was, in my opinion, more of a celebration for (as we now know) the US Navy Seals who successfully accomplished a seemingly impossible mission. For the last 10 years the American intelligence and military communities have been trying to bring OBL to justice, and this team succeeded.

I'd like to think of the "USA!" chants as the moral equivalent to "The West will win. Freedom and democracy will triumph. We will not tire and we will never give up."

But I will grant you that it comes across as juvenile...

Posted by: ProphetJoe | May 12, 2011 6:29:30 AM

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