Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Celebrating Death

So much talk about the morality of celebrating bin Laden's death. There's this idea going around that death is just not something that should ever be cause for celebration. That death is always and essentially bad. That killing is evil, even if it is sometimes a necessary evil.

I can't buy into it. First of all, killing never increases the amount of death in the universe. The only thing that increases the amount of death in the universe is procreation, and I don't think procreation is bad. (I am a proud father, as it happens.) So, even if death is bad, killing isn't necessarily bad. But is death necessarily bad?

Death can be terrifying to anticipate, and it can be devastating to families and communities. And, of course, death can be painful--even cruel. But it is not inherently any of these things. And, even when it carries these negative consequences, it may still outweigh them with positive ones. We might tell ourselves that it would be better if we didn't have to die, but I think we're just fooling ourselves. We don't know what it would mean if death didn't have to happen, if life just went on and on forever. It could very well be unbearable.

I can't rationally say that I want to live forever. I can't say I want to die, either, though I hope that one day, when I have grown much older and seen my family flourish, I will be ready for my end. Death is something I struggle to embrace, not something I spit at and pretend could be avoided.

So it is curious to me to see so many Americans (on Facebook, because that's my main connection to people outside of Poland) posting about how it is just so wrong to be happy about a person's death. They say that the military victory may be cause for celebration, but bin Laden's death is not. Many links are circulating, such as this from NPR and this from popular author and Buddhist, Susan Piver.

The NPR piece warns against confusing the desire for retributive justice with the desire to win the war against terror. Harvard philosopher Christine Korsgaard is quoted as saying, "If we have any feeling of victory or triumph in the case, it should be because we have succeeded in disabling him — not because he is dead." Why not? Is there no justification for openly celebrating retributive justice?

In her piece, Piver says there is "a real problem" if anyone experiences even a hint of happiness at bin Laden's death. Why? Well, she follows up the comment by saying it is delusional to believe that bin Laden's death can compensate for any of the suffering he caused while he was alive. True enough. It's no compensation. But whoever said it was? I doubt many, if any, people have been celebrating because they believe the terrorist balance sheet has finally been settled. Osama bin Laden's death is largely symbolic, and I see nothing immoral about celebrating it as such. I see nothing morally wrong with openly expressing positive feelings about his death.

Piver's concern is that we're losing sight of the us-ness. It's not us-vs.-them, she says. We're all us.

That's just spiritual nonsense to me. On the whole, I think the "don't celebrate death" thing is ultimately motivated by a great fear of death, by an inability to embrace it, and not by the appreciation of some great spiritual truth.

There are some legitimate concerns raised in the NPR piece--about putting bin Laden's death in perspective, about considering how America's reaction looks to other nations, especially those which might be more sympathetic to bin Laden. Those are important issues. I haven't seen the footage, but I would not be surprised if many Americans are all-too-typically letting their arrogance get the better of them. There may be legitimate concerns about the way people are celebrating bin Laden's death. But there's a big difference between saying we should celebrate death properly and saying we should not celebrate it at all. In any case, just how much respect do people need to show al-Qaeda?