How Should We Commemorate the Death of an Enemy?



A year ago I was sitting in my apartment at college, hogging the TV from my roommates who just wanted to watch the newest episode of The Bachelor, as I anxiously awaited President Obama’s press conference. Twitter had indicated 15 minutes earlier that Osama bin Laden had been killed at the hands of Navy SEALS, but it didn’t seem real until I heard the President say: “The United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.”

But after I listened to this statement, I felt inexplicably empty. How was I supposed to feel? Joyous? Safe? Relieved? Sad? Should I join members of my campus who had wrapped themselves in American flags and were parading around the library? Was I supposed to say the Mourner’s Kaddish for bin Laden, as I might for a family member or friend? I wanted to immediately identify a nuanced reaction to the news, but wasn’t I allowed to just embrace my gut instincts? And what were those, anyway?

In the weeks that followed the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden, many rabbis contributed to the national discussion and helped inform how our Jewish tradition instructs us to commemorate the death of an enemy. Unsurprisingly, the commentary varied, mimicking the canon of our ancient texts. Some, including Rabbi Marvin Hier, suggested: “This is a time to say ‘mazal tov.’ It’s a time of great jubilation…Haman and his ilk wanted to destroy the Jewish people and are, themselves, destroyed, and that is the only time during the year where Jews must become merry. There’s no way of interpreting your way out of that.”

Conversely, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, outgoing president of the Union for Reform Judaism, remarked: “As the president said, justice was done. Bin Laden was an evil man. He preyed on the weak. He killed in the name of God. But, I was not comfortable with the celebrations. Thoughtful discussion and thoughtful remembrance of recent events are to be preferred to dancing in the streets.”

My initial reactions to bin Laden’s death never clarified. Looking back, I am still conflicted about whether there is ever a situation in which one person has the right to take another person’s life (especially as I consider myself fervently against the death penalty). But a year later, we are all in a different place.

With a year’s worth of hindsight, we can take a step back and recognize that our world has become definitively safer since bin Laden’s death. Al Qaeda is crippled (Yemen remains one of the last places in which the organization has real power), and bin Laden was not the only leader that the Obama Administration successfully eliminated. Putting aside for now the debate over the appropriateness of the tactics used in some of these killings, death is a cost of war, and sometimes the elimination of an enemy is not only acceptable but necessary.

But after we’ve had our time to celebrate or gloat or grieve, we can be thankful for those who risked their lives that day and every day to keep us safe; we can continue to reach out to families who lost loved ones on 9/11; we can extend our hands to our Muslim brothers and sisters who face harsh discrimination simply because the extremists with whom we are at war also claim that faith as their own; and we can continue to work together to make our world more secure in the face of terrorism and hatred.

If your congregation is interested in continuing this discussion, please the Religious Action Center’s “Commemorating 9/11” resource page.

Photo courtesy of Associated Press

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Katharine Nasielski

About Katharine Nasielski

Katharine Burd Nasielski is the Communications Associate at the RAC and was an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant from 2011-2012. She graduated in 2011 from Northwestern University and is originally from Philadelphia, PA where she is a member of Society Hill Synagogue.

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