Like many of my dear friends, in response to the death of Osama Bin Laden, I too posted this eloquent quote making it’s way around on Facebook – mistakenly attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
I just discovered the actual quote:
“I’m concerned about a better world. I’m concerned about justice; I’m concerned about brotherhood; I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
We Jews recently celebrated Passover. As a not very religious Jew, Passover – a personal and communal celebration of spring, justice and liberation – is my favorite holiday. We remember the many miracles of the Exodus, including when G-d brought the 10 plagues upon Egypt, freed the Israelite slaves, and parted the Red Sea.
According to Midrash, Nachshon Ben Aminadev leaped into the water, but it was not until the water reached the very entrance of his nostrils, that the sea parted. This ACTION in the face of physical “reality” opened the way for liberation. Then Miriam, Moses’ sister, danced with her timbrel, leading the fleeing women through to safety.
After the Israelites reached the opposite shore, the pursuing Egyptians in their horse-drawn chariots, were trapped – and the sea came suddenly crashing down upon them – both man and beast horribly drowned in a churning-choking mass of screaming panic.
The Israelites barely made it across.
Turning back to look upon the crashing sea, they witnessed this horrific sight, and heard the Egyptian’s dying pleas.
The Midrash says that Israelites were celebrating and the ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns too, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said, The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?
It is my understanding of the Midrash that the Israelites were not also admonished from celebrating, because their death was imminent at the hands of the Egyptians.
Should we “celebrate” the death of Osama Bin Laden?
During our Passover Seder we also remember and recite the ten plagues inflicted upon the Egyptians. We place our pinky finger into our individual cups filled to the brim with dark, red, blood-like wine. We remove a drop of wine for each of the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians, our ancient slave masters. We consciously remove a portion of our joy– we withdraw a portion of our pleasure in their pain.
The Exodus story is deeply inspirational to Jews, Christians and Moslems alike –and has served as a blueprint for the liberation of many collective struggles. This ancient story is in our collective hearts and minds – and perhaps even our DNA.
On the surface, the story and the lessons of the Midrash surrounding it, are easily understood – but during times of great stress and strife, these same lessons are very difficult live by.
It’s relatively easy, while most of us in the US sit around well-stocked comfortable tables reading our Passover Haggadahs, to look back thousands of years and temper our celebration for the death of long-ago enemies.
But when events are in the present day – when we celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden – it’s a much, much greater challenge.
On a personal level, when someone hurts me deeply, I sometimes feel a desire to retaliate. If my internal pain is great and deep enough, especially if it touches a sore wound from childhood … sometimes I crave and look forward to delighting in revenge or even witnessing my enemy’s ultimate demise.
Ah, the desire for righteous revenge and the joy of victory!
So sweet … so, “natural” … It feels good, this breathing a full deep fiery, angry breath.
But is this the kind of satisfaction we should relish?
When the tragedy of 9/11 occurred, the entire country was deeply hurt, shocked, damaged. We North Americans became vulnerable at home – for the first time since the Cold War, since the time of bomb shelters in basements — our national psyche became fragile.
I remember as a young girl being trained to hide under my desk at school in case of a bomb attack. I recall being very young, perhaps in first grade, hearing the school alarm go off. My teachers’ usually calm voice became trembling and insistent – calling out for us to immediately get under out desks. I see myself in the memory of my distant past, a little girl, crawling under my old fashioned wooden desk with the attached metal chair, placing my hands over my head as I was instructed – wondering how this tiny desk was going to protect me from a bomb I could barely even imagine. But that memory was long ago, from when I was a young child – a vague puff of smoke.
Until 9/11, we, most North Americans, had no fear of this kind of attack – it happened ELSEWHERE, in OTHER countries, to OTHER people. Immigrants to the US remembered it happening in their home countries, but not here, not in “The Promised Land.”
Here in New York, our first reaction was to act, to save, to get those who were dying, OUT – to deal with the crisis, to search the ruins for life. Then came shock, disbelief, horror, sadness – and we bonded together in grief, in love for those who continued to search, for those who died, and in support of the entire City of New York, suddenly so vulnerable.
I recall hugging friends and strangers in the streets as they staggered finally to the safety of Brooklyn, to Flatbush and 6th Avenue, right on my corner, having crossed the Brooklyn Bridge – covered in soot; thanking G-d they were still alive.
I remember my friends who were alternative healthcare workers opening their clinics at all hours, to all-comers – offering free massages and soothing teas. We gathered in courtyards with friends – the physically, emotionally and spiritually wounded – to give and receive support. The energy of “tough” New York City shifted to a sea of compassion and love – suddenly we were all brothers and sisters – happy to see one another alive.
But then, that caring and compassion for our fellow human beings became twisted – the Bush administration played upon our fears, galvanized the shock and anger and focused it on Iraq – into a war for oil against a country that had no connection to the Tower’s demise. “Shock and Awe” our hurt emotions, were transformed to an slogan for attack. And with that war came an all-out demonization of everything Arab and everything Islam.
We were plunged into the hell of revenge upon revenge upon revenge – and to this day acts of terrorism continue worldwide – seemingly unstoppable.
The Death of Osama Bin Laden
The US sought to kill Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the Twin Tower suicide mission – and when we learn of his death, we want to celebrate his demise – it’s only “natural.”
But, is “celebration” appropriate?
If you compare the quotes above, you will see that in King’s actual quote, he goes even further – he condemns ALL violence, all killing – not only the unchecked celebration of a “righteous” killing – Quite a different statement!
In response to the quote I had posted on Facebook, my friend Debra McGhee wrote:
“You are so right! I was shocked at the reaction people had to this announcement. Frankly, I’m not at all sure how much of a difference it will make. Also, I remember when the Twin Towers fell and our TV stations showed footage of people dancing in the streets in Iran and on the West Bank. We thought they were BARBARIC. When YouTube picks up footage of Americans dancing because Bin Laden was killed, people in the Arab world will shake their heads and mutter about what a blood thirsty group we are . … I want US to be different. And yes, I know that it is different because 911 killed innocent people whereas the execution of Bin Laden brought to a close a murderous career. And yes, I know that Iranians are not Arabs. But still . . . we will not be well perceived with all this dancing and caring-on over an execution. Funny how Martin’s wisdom continues to work as the years go by.”
The desire for vengeance and the celebration of death has become a part of our every-day culture. Violent mass media – from children’s games with machine-gun toting cartoon characters that rip each other limb from limb, to adult films glorifying invincible part-robot super macho men who destroy entire countries. These images create and mirror a vulnerable culture whipped into a frenzy. This frenzy created by and supporting the corporate take-over of the world economy, an economy of endless war and destruction – fueled by fears – nationalistic, racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic.
We live in a culture that teaches us that we are less than men and pitiful examples of women – if we don’t seek revenge in our personal lives and also celebrate world domination.
I wonder as I write today, can we step back from this “natural” desire to celebrate our enemy’s demise, to question – just for a moment – our desire to gloat about Bin Laden’s killing?
If not, I fear that our overly zealous celebration will be whipped up and confused so that the actions of one man or group will again be misconstrued to represent all Islam.
ASMA, American Society for Muslim Advancement http://www.asmasociety.org/ issued a press release on Monday, addressing the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Referring to 9/11, the release states: “This act was carried out in the name of religion and was an affront on the human condition. As president Obama reminded us that this terrorist was not a Muslim leader and did not represent Islam. He caused many to question the fundamental core beliefs we hold dear-love of one’s fellow neighbor; respect for others’ ways of life, and; mutual dialogue and understanding.”
As Jews we are instructed to perform the rituals of the Seder as if we personally came out of Egypt. Only a week after Passover, do we wonder if G-ds’ commandment to perform the ritual acts of the Seder, to consciously remove a portion of our sweet and drunken pleasure in the joy of an enemy’s demise are relevant today?
I doubt if I can find a place in my heart to “love” Osama Ben Laden – but I can strive to love life, to love the Divine spark that glows in each of us. I pray that I will recognize that Divine spark – that I, that we, will value the millions of souls who remain on this planet, the millions of Divine sparks that live on earth right now.
During Passover, I dipped my finger into the wine of my drunken pleasure. The drunken pleasure of vengeance to remove a portion of my joy. I remembered. I pray that we will cherish the future.
I take this momentous occasion – the occasion of the death of Osama Bin Laden – a man who was the director of so much death – yes, to celebrate a kind victory – but more importantly, I take this moment to celebrate LIFE – ALL LIFE.
Perhaps we must walk into the Red Sea, like Nachshon Ben Aminadev, up to our nostrils in the “reality” of the world and its violence, knowing in our hearts that the sea will open because of our willingness to walk in the face of what the physical world tells us is “true” – to take ACTION on behalf of love.
We must remember G-ds’ admonishment: to refrain from unabashed joy at the death of an enemy – to withdraw a portion of joy in response to our enemy’s pain and destruction.
We must remember, lest we become less than fully human in the celebration.
Let us take this time, this important moment in history to look inside, to temper our rejoicing — to dive UNDERNEATH our fears and our desire for vengeance – beyond righteous anger, to the Holy place of its origin … to our truest and holiest desire – the desire to be drunk on love, on peace, on justice – to dance with our timbrels – and to re-dedicate ourselves, instead, to those ideals.
The Exodus story is an inspiration to Christians, Jews and Muslims– to the Civil Rights Movement led by the glimmering torch of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Can we resist the urge to gloat about death? Perhaps if we can, then the Earth and all those who inhabit her beauty will have a future.
Special thanks to Gella Solomon, Chani Getter and Debra McGhee for the information they supplied at a moments notice.
Noam Chomsky: My Reaction to Osama bin Laden’s Death
May 6, 2011
We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic.
Marianne Williamson debates the morality of people cheering the death of Osama Bin Laden.
Dick Gordon’s comments on the death of Osama Bin Laden on NPR’s “The Story.” http://thestory.org/extra-audio/Dick_Gordon_Commentary_re_Osama_bin_Laden.mp3/view