The momentous yet mixed results of this week’s Canadian election were overshadowed on the global scene by the killing of Osama bin Laden. Though the first event riveted me more, the second has more philosophical significance – or rather, not the event itself, but the reaction to it.
Americans have typically greeted bin Laden’s death with jubilation and celebration, often waving American flags and chanting “U.S.A.” But some minority voices, such as Linton Weeks at NPR radio and Pamela Gerloff of the Huffington Post, have raised questions about this celebration. Is it really a good idea to celebrate a human death, even the death of one’s enemy?
This all makes a good occasion to revisit an earlier short post of mine, one of my favourites. The thing that affected me most at my one Goenka meditation retreat was not the meditation practice in general, but the closing practice of karmic redirection, because it specifically involved wishing George W. Bush well – and, more generally, wishing one’s enemies well. What applies to Bush here applies to bin Laden – the two men are of course enemies of each other, but I also consider them both enemies of mine.
A couple months ago, Thill questioned the value of Goenka’s practice – not over its efficacy, but over the values that underlie it. Thill asks: “Is wishing the enemy well actually a case of masochism since the enemy is a person who wants to harm us?… What if the enemy is a sadist whose happiness consists in seeing you suffer? Then, wishing this enemy happiness is tantamount to wishing one’s own suffering!”
As Jim Wilton rightly noted in his replies, wishing enemies well does not entail wishing them success in their aims, or wishing that their desires be fulfilled. This is as true of one’s friends as of one’s enemies. If my friend is addicted to crack cocaine, wishing him well does not mean that I wish he find more crack to smoke. Indeed I wish him the exact opposite. What he needs most is a change in the structure of his desires; he will probably be better off with the desires unfulfilled, as that would bring about the relevant change. And the same applies to people with evil or hateful aims: wishing them a good and happy life carries with it the wish that they improve and become better people. Thill’s comments here have assumed a simplistic understanding of happiness that equates it with the satisfaction of desire, when often what is needed for a long-term and stable happiness is the exact opposite.
In reply to Jim, Thill makes an important point: “note the element of self-interest in all this. In wishing all that for your enemy, you are also wishing a change in your enemy’s attitude towards you. It is all tantamount to wishing that he or she is in a condition in which he or she ceases to be your enemy!” That’s true. But even if one characterizes it as self-interested, one should notice what such wishing for one’s enemy’s virtue doesn’t imply: namely revenge. One wishes that, in spite of the bad things the enemy has done, he might still become better and happier, in the process ceasing to be an enemy. One does not take the enemy’s violent and painful death as an occasion for celebration.
Now let me clarify: this is not a call for pacifism. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, I sat in on a class at Harvard where the professor’s response to the attacks was “I think we should set up an exchange program, so that people in our countries can better understand each other.” (Students applauded.) I was stunned at the naïveté expressed there. We are not talking about people who express frustrating differences at the ballot box (like, say, Québec separatists – most of the time). We are talking about people who want to kill you, and have just killed several of your fellow countrymen simply because they were your fellow countrymen; they would do it to you if given the chance – like on an exchange program.
Gandhi, to whom Thill refers in this context, was considerably more sophisticated than said professor. Gandhi understood that his pacifism would cause great suffering, even many deaths, to his own side; but that it was worth it to achieve his goals in a morally upstanding way. It’s worth celebrating the success of Gandhi’s nonviolent methods against colonialism – and those of Martin Luther King, who derived many of his methods from Gandhi. But Gandhi and King were facing enemies who believed in justice over power, in the rule of law, in the value of human life. The goals of the British Empire and of the American South were to preserve an unjust and discriminatory social order which they believed to be benign. The goals of the Nazis, by contrast, were extermination. If an Indian stood fearlessly in front of a British soldier’s gun, the soldier would rightly fear the public repercussions of shooting. If a Jew stood fearlessly in front of a Nazi gun, she would merely save the Nazi the work of rounding her up. Bin Laden, in this respect, was far more akin to the Nazis – his attacks weren’t even to make demands, the destruction itself was the goal. (It is worth noting that Bush, however, would have been significantly more akin to the British Empire.) I agree with Thill on this much: one often must fight against one’s enemies, and sometimes this does require violence.
This violence is, however, regrettable. In war, killing another human being can be – and often is – the best course of action. But it is a tragic right action, and one should be aware of this fact. Thill claimed in another context: “Even if you want to kill a dog or a horse in order to put it out of misery and you do it skillfully, it would still be a gross distortion to describe this act as one which gives pleasure to the agent.” That is, one feels compassion, a painful emotion occasioned by another’s suffering. I discussed compassion myself in response to Thill’s post, noting that because we are not perfect or ideal people, we need remind ourselves that others’ pain is a bad thing (even if a hypothetical perfect person might need feel no regrets). The killing of an enemy, it seems to me, fits under exactly this class of action: necessary but regrettable, a proper occasion for compassion. Finding and punishing bin Laden was an important goal, and it is good that the US government under Obama succeeded in accomplishing this goal. And yet even so, it is not an occasion for celebration, but for sadness that it had to come to this.