A few days ago, the terrorist Osama bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces at his hideaway in northern Pakistan. In the US and other coalition countries, it was a time for much reflecting. Bin Laden had been leading a small group of dedicated terrorists on a campaign of violence for many years before the horrific events of 9/11 brought him and al Qaeda into the forefront of American consciousness. Some 2,977 Americans lost their lives that day. The heart of our military complex was pierced, and arguably the most identifiable of American symbols was destroyed in America's most important city. More than that, virtually every American was forced to confront some basic facts about our security and our standing among the nations of the world. As Americans, we are raised to believe that we are invincible, that we are right, and that we have a responsibility to keep the world safe from a wide variety of ideologies that we believe to be evil. The events of 9/11 gave us pause to question.
I watched the events of 9/11 in utter disbelief. I was uncertain if it was over, frightened for what it meant for our country, and alternately proud and embarrassed of the voracious displays of "patriotism" that so many Americans, led by our government, undertook in an effort to put the world on notice that we would not be cowed by terrorists and would fight back at any cost. I hugged my kids a bit closer that night and for many nights afterward, hoping that the world might someday return to one of relative balance and security.
I watched the events of bin Laden's killing with a strange mix of satisfaction and fear in my heart. I was satisfied that we had doggedly pursued every lead for so many years, and that we had brought down a very bad man with no additional loss of US lives. But I was heartbroken by the reaction of the people who celebrated his death, just as I was heartbroken to watch Somalis drag the bodies of helicopter pilots through the streets of Mogadishu, and to watch some Islamic extremists celebrate 9/11. I was not in a very celebratory or joyful mood. As I was talking about the situation with my children, they seemed a bit surprised that I was not happy about bin Laden's death. They were not jumping up and down for joy by any means, but they were in general perfectly fine with it. After all, for most of their lives bin Laden has been viewed as a modern-day Hitler, worthy of our anger and aggression. And I don't disagree; I do not know what kind of man he was, but he was responsible for thousands of deaths and needed to be stopped. But I did not celebrate his death, and I was disgusted and shamed by the celebrations I did see.
It has taken me a couple of days to figure out why bin Laden's death is so strange for me. I think it has something to do with the way we have come to accept death so easily in our society, as a logical outcome of various battles between good and evil all over the globe. And I think it has much to do with what that acceptance says about us as a species and us as a society.
In the Rwandan genocides of 1994, more than 800,000 people were killed in a matter of weeks; that is roughly the population of San Francisco or Austin, TX. Roughly 400,000 people have died in the Sudan in the last few years as a result of deplorable living conditions brought on by a civil war; that is roughly the population of Miami, Cleveland, or Tulsa. In the "War on Terror" in Iraq and Afghanistan, reliable estimates put the total death toll at somewhere around 919,967, which includes 5,885 US service members; this is roughly the population of San Jose, CA, or Indianapolis. The wars in the Balkans in the early 90s caused deaths equal to the population of Cincinnati. Combined, these deaths of just these few wars would equal the population of Chicago.
In fact, there have been some 160 million deaths as a result of armed conflict in the 20th century alone, roughly equal to the populations of France, the UK, and Canada combined. It is a horrific number, an appalling number, a number that almost defies belief . . . and that is where the problem lies. It is a number so staggering as to be completely inaccessible to our ability to rationalize or even begin to comprehend. 160 million people is just ludicrous, right? I can wrap my head around 2,977, maybe even 5,885. And I can sure as hell wrap my head around one, especially when that one is responsible for so many others. But 160 million? Impossible.
I understand that, I suppose - that we cannot comprehend something so large, so we have to start small. But I think that in doing that, we run the risk of marginalizing or trivializing death itself. The fact that we can afford to celebrate one because we cannot figure out a way to make sense of the many is one of the darkest aspects of our human character.
Today, I am not mourning the death of Osama bin Laden, and I am not mourning the death of the millions of people - 160 million people - who have died in armed conflicts in the past 100 years. And I am not even mourning the death of the victims or 9/11 or our service members who have died in the War on Terror. I have already done so, privately, in my own way.
But I am in mourning. I am mourning the loss of perspective, the loss of humanity, and the loss of respect for basic human dignity and suffering that has allowed us to trivialize and celebrate a death, any death. I am mourning the circumstances that have led us to judge deaths as "heroic" or "justified" or"necessary", while others are "lamentable" or "unavoidable" or "peripheral." I am mourning the fact that we on one hand claim that every life is valuable, and then do little to interject or stop violence that has only one logical conclusion. I am mourning the fact that we are celebrating a death more than we often celebrate life. And I am mourning the fact that by the very act of celebrating a death, we are demonstrating the fundamental disregard we have for life itself.
We can be so much better than this.