Wednesday, May 25, 2011


“I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” ---Mark Twain
On May 1, hours after the news broke about OBL's death, Father Federico Lombardi of the Vatican issued a statement:

"In the face of a man's death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred."

Is it morally right to celebrate the death of bin Laden? Yes, of course it is. Father Lombardi is wrong, morally, as are other Christians who share his thinking. Not only may one rejoice when evil is vanquished, but the failure to do so gives rise to a profound confusion and a moral relativism that leads us far from anything resembling biblical values. We see this confusion in some of the commentary about OBL's death. Celebrating it, some tell us, makes us equivalent to the Palestinians who partied in the streets when the World Trade Center went down. In other words, feeling pleasure at the slaughter of thousands of innocent people is the same, morally, as taking satisfaction in the execution of a mass murderer. Nothing good can come from this sort of thinking, and the Father Lombardis of the world are partially responsible for it If your moral compass is so broken that all you are able to do is “deplore violence” of any sort, and you cannot distinguish good from evil, you need a new compass.

Christians get confused sometimes because Christ was not a warrior. But He was not a pacifist either. He was not at all uncertain or dismissive, as pacifists are, about good and evil. In confronting the Pharisees, the money-changers, and even the fig tree, Jesus showed no ambivalence. Christ was not into whatever-whatever. Christ had definite views on things and He was not always an especially nice guy about it.

What can be puzzling is Christ's submission to torture and crucifixion. Christ gave himself to suffering because suffering is the lot of man, and He was a man in those final hours. This was His gift to all of us. But the use of this sacrifice to transform Christ into a symbol of non-violence or “tolerance” or moral mushiness is a perversion of Christianity. It misses the point entirely.

Father Lombardi's error is one Jews rarely make, even if they are thoroughly secular and go to synagogue once a year and voted for Obama. Even bagel-and-lox Jews normally have a well-developed sense of evil because, though their spiritual education may have been limited, it was unpolluted by the subtleties of the New Testament. Jewish kids get the Torah, and that's all they get, and one cannot read the Torah without getting the unambiguous message that God really, really, really hates evil and that, for us mortals, hatred of evil and a willingness to fight it are an essential component of obedience to God. For most Jews, it is a given that if one loves God, one must fight evil. For a Christian, even a Christian like Father Lombardi of the Vatican, it's a lot more complicated and nuanced and confusing.

Also, of course, the question of whether it is proper to celebrate the death of a monster is an ethical question, and ethical questions are pretty much what rabbis do for a living, and they've been doing it since long before Christ. That's what the Talmud is all about. Unlike Christians, Jews don't speculate much on the afterlife; they are an earthbound people who were “chosen,” in part, to tell the rest of us how God wants us to behave, so they've had a lot of practice in arguing about these questions.

And that (arguing) is what they do. There's no pope, there's no hierarchy, there's no white smoke and infallible pronouncements. There's just a bunch of rabbis writing books and arguing with each other down through the centuries. It's a dialectical process and, well, I suppose this is my prejudice, but I'll take a dialectical process over revelation any day of the week. Maybe if I had actually had a revelation, I would feel differently about it, but instead of having revelations I went to law school, so there it is. Some of us rely on reason and argument. Some of us only find the truth that way. Some of us prefer double-blind studies at Johns Hopkins to the ancient mutterings of Chinese herbalists.

It would be unfair to suggest that Christians are unable to handle these questions, you understand. All I'm saying is that if you rely on Vatican spokesmen for your understanding of good and evil in this dirty little world, you're just not playing the percentages. Jews have seen more evil than Father Lombardi can ever imagine, they know what to do with it, and they are unlikely to make Lombardi's mistake.

On the evening of March 8, 2004, I received a phone call from my friend Joe Andrejewski, a man with many connections in the US military. Joe informed me that Abu Abbas had died in Iraq a few hours before, after having been captured by American troops. Abbas had been on the run since 1985, when he masterminded the Achille Lauro hijacking and then had been permitted to escape from Italian custody. My parents had been among the twelve American hostages terrorized by the PLO aboard the Achille Lauro, and while I had not spent the preceding nineteen years dreaming of revenge, I was nevertheless aware that Abu Abbas had escaped justice, and Joe Andrejewski was aware I was aware.

I thanked him for the news, and we ended the conversation. I stood there in my kitchen for a while, staring out the window into the twilight. My cat Seven was on the kitchen table, and I scratched his head for a minute while he purred. Then I took a beer out of the refrigerator and stepped out into the backyard. It was a warmish day for early March and I noticed the crocuses were emerging. I popped the beer and took a pull. I've had thousands of beers, I suppose, but this one seemed especially cold and piquant. The world, on the evening of March 8, seemed a better place. I was not, at that moment, interested in “the further growth of peace.” I was glad the bastard was dead.

Few of us are saints, and most of us do not even aspire to be. We try to do the right thing and we try to please God, and if we are lucky, we will succeed some of the time. It is too much to ask of a man that he not take some satisfaction in imagining that when we triumph over an evil man like Osama bin Laden, God is pleased.