Our euphoric national mood in the wake of the assassination of Osama bin Laden may make for a reluctance to look once again, or perhaps for the first time, at his demands. There has been almost nothing in the mainstream press that examines his motivations for terrorism.
We prefer a bogeyman of pure evil, because this does not require the kind of introspection suggested by the Society of Friends: what is it in my own inner condition, or that of my country, that might play a part in leading to a phenomenon like Osama?
In an extensive 2002 letter to the American people printed in the British publication the Observer, Osama laid out his specific justifications for horrific violence against innocents.
He began by citing passages from the Koran that give permission to Islamists to fight “disbelievers.” Immediately this sets up a pathological context, because it contains what philosophers call a performative contradiction: he proclaims Islam as a universal religion, but his vision is radically exclusivist. His illusion is that a universal God is on the side of pure Islam against impure or non-Islamists.
But similar rationalizations for counter-violence undergird U.S. actions, often based in a Christianity, which, like Osama’s warped version of Islam, all too casually discards Jesus’ radical non-violence.
Jesus, whom Islam accepts as an authentic prophet, took great pains to avoid “us and them” thinking in his parables and teachings. He said that the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and that you cannot separate the wheat from the tares (weeds). In other words, be very cautious about making fallible human judgments about who around you is good and who is evil. Instead of blaming others, look at yourself first.
Osama goes on in his letter to say that he and his colleagues are fighting the U.S. because the U.S. is attacking them, specifically by supporting Israel against Palestine. He is explicit in his hatred of Jews: to him the creation of Israel is a crime, and he implies no willingness to accept a more inclusive, multi-cultural vision of the region’s future.
And he calls for revenge. The world has partaken liberally of this great universal response to conflict and violence. Our decision to assassinate him was not an act of restorative justice. Letting him live would not have brought back to life those who perished on 9/11. It was an act of retributive, consciously decided, cold-minded revenge. In the intent eyes of our heads of government as they followed the actions of the Navy Seals, eyes that included a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, it was possible to see the blindness of an eye for an eye that makes the whole world blind.
What a pity that we must look beyond the mainstream for models of authentic maturity—to those who lost relatives on 9/11 and yet refuse to continue the cycle and want instead to expend their energy building something new. To the Palestinian doctor Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish, who lost three daughters to an Israeli shell, and has dedicated his life not to revenge but to reconciliation.
Our planetary misery and fear will never be decreased by revenge. Revenge is built into the very deterrence which rationalizes the possession of massive nuclear arsenals. On that level of potential destruction we experience the mother of all performative contradictions: a revenge-cycle that could kill us all, as it very nearly did in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and could again if, say, India and Pakistan were to fall into the omnicidal trap of a full nuclear exchange, plunging the world into nuclear winter.
Not all of Osama’s justifications for violence were based in irrational fantasies of the revenge of “us” upon “them.” He raised valid issues, like our military bases girding the world, or the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq as the result of our sanctions, or our double standards about whom we allow to have nuclear weapons and whom we do not—issues that have also been raised by patriotic and loyal Americans in and out of government.
Yes, we may have gained a superficial kind of closure by killing Osama. But we lost the opportunity to put him on trial, which could have been the beginning of a deeper dialogue about the futility of revenge on all sides, and a much greater step toward reducing terrorism than assassination—let alone trillion-dollar wars of revenge.