Monday, May 9, 2011

When joy at someone's death can reveal how dead we are

Last Monday, the world learnt largely through the internet the unfolding of the news of the death of Osama bin Laden. This news was met by various groups of people, and the media showed how they reacted to it. The New York Times webpage showed many clips and photos of people who were jubilant and ecstatic, almost as if America had won some major international sporting event, with car horns blaring into the dawn. I must say that I was bothered and saddened as I saw what went on.

I tried putting myself into the shoes of the many millions of lives who had been badly affected by terrorism. Yes, I myself may not have been directly affected in large ways. Perhaps in small ways, I was. I have become more careful and vigilant about my surroundings, perhaps living in some degree of paranoia, and insecurity, and it is most apparent when I need to travel internationally. Visits to the States nowadays require us to remove all footwear, undergo scans and searches, and accept these as de rigueur. But I cannot say that I have lost a loved one in the collapse and destruction on the World Trade Centre in New York on Sept 11 2001, or even known anyone personally who did. Putting myself in their shoes, it would not be hard to feel the anger, resentment and bitterness that can envelope and darken one's world, and want some form of retribution. But when news of Bin Laden’s death is announced, would I rejoice and be happy?

The larger and more important question that every single one of us needs to ask ourselves is why would anyone's death make us happy? The fact that another human being who shares my very same dignity as God's child is no longer alive, no longer breathing and existing in this form must weaken my own existence. Of course, the greater the contribution that this person made to humanity, the more I will be aware of this, and feel a certain diminution of my own humanity.

But what if this other human being was an apparent mastermind behind some very heinous and egregious crimes against humanity? Can this justify extermination? The upholding of the dignity of every human person is a very Catholic (read UNIVERSAL) mind, which unfortunately, is not very universal. What seems to be much more universal is an 'eye-for-an-eye' mentality which makes us all live in a very inhumane way. Some of us may even argue quite convincingly that now that Osama bin Laden is dead, the world is a safer place. But doesn't this also mean that we who have sanctioned, supported and justified a man's murder have failed to make the world a safer place too?

The Blessed Karol Wojtyla, also known to the world as the late Pope John Paul II who was beatified only last week in Rome sent the world the key to universal peace and healing when he went to the prison cell to forgive his assassin Mehmet Ali Agca after he recovered from the assassination attempt in 1981.

Yes, it is true that Agca never plotted a wave of terror or sent planes into buildings killing thousands of innocent people. He never masterminded anything close to a network of terrorists in various parts of the world. But numbers alone cannot justify our sense of elation, jubilation and joy at the death of any one person. And it must not. It is because we think in terms of numbers and have a disjointed sense of justice that we find ourselves picketing for the upholding of the death penalty instead of a chance for reform or long-term incarceration to keep dangerous minds from harming innocent folk. And we think we are better off with one of us dead.

Two thousand years after the public cry for the release of Barabbas in exchange for the crucifixion of Jesus, we should have learnt the tremendous lesson of forgiveness when he said from the Cross "forgive them for they know not what they do". The Blessed Pope John Paul II put that into action in that jail visit to Agca in 1981.

Apparently, most of us haven't yet learnt that lesson well, and feel more or less justified with the deaths that we cause or feel jubilant over, all in the name of 'justice'.


  1. Hi Fr Luke

    Thank you for sharing plainly your take on this. Like you, I too was much disturbed by all that jubilation and celebration when it was announced that Osama was dead. It struck very deep because despite whatever wrong he has done to humanity, this man is after all, a fellow human being and bears the dignity of Christ, the seeds of this were planted during your homily where you once touched on this subject, and where I subsequently went on to discover a deeper love for Christ, and therefore a deeper love for fellow human beings. And it was perverse to watch human beings celebrating about the death of another human being. Especially post-footages of Osama taping himself rehearsing speeches, living a life in hiding, how lonely he must have been. Of course not undermining the pain and grief that people who lost loved ones in 9/11 suffered. Everyone has their own cross to bear. My colleague, a PR from Hong Kong, he was very disturbed too, though he is not Christian and therefore not familiar with the point about dignity in the image of Christ, he had this to say that, even from a secular point of view, it was distubing the way Obama and several other national leader put across their messages, that it would wrongly give people and the next generations the idea that it is a must to seek revenge and retaliate when a wrong has been done to you. And when will it ever end? It is a feud that has gone back way before - the US did wrong to them and Al-Qaeda retaliated with 9/11. Now the US has retaliated. Who knows when Al-Qaeda will next retaliate again and with even more far-reaching consequences? It takes so much more emotional and spiritual maturity and strength, inner strength, to be like Pope John Paul II, to say I decide to step back and forgive this wrong done to myself, than to seek redress as the world sees justice. Same goes to our lives with daily hurts and 'deaths' done to us, where we need to learn to be the one to say, I decide to forgive and open the way to peace and the possibility of renewed relationships. 2000 years ago, people found it difficult to swallow Jesus' message about such unlimitless mercy to other people. 2000 years on, as a disciple of Christ, I still face the same resistance and disbelief from non-believers who call this type behaviour meek, submissive, being too kind (is there such a thing as too much kindness, by the way?) who say, not choosing revenge is hard to understand.


  2. ’ The fact that another human being who shares my very same dignity as God's child is no longer alive, no longer breathing and existing in this form must weaken my own existence. Of course, the greater the contribution that this person made to humanity, the more I will be aware of this, and feel a certain diminution of my own humanity. ‘’ – these words speak to me.

    The fact that the Blessed John Paul II was the Vicar of Christ may give many the impression that somehow ‘’to forgive is divine (only)…’’ It is true that divine grace is needed but forgiveness is also a human need.
    I remember reading a true account of Rabbi Gelberman whose whole family was exterminated in the Nazi Holocaust- he said that he has forgiven because he had to let go of what happened. Many of the other Jewish survivors of the Holocaust brought Hitler with them to America and lived daily with the horrors of the concentration camp. He shared this beautiful testimony with them why he chose to forgive – Moses farewell/deathbed speech - “ This day ……..……….I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.’’ ( Dt 30:19 ) So when he chose to forgive– he’s choosing healing, wholeness – LIFE ! He becomes ‘human’ again.
    If this is so, then , perhaps – with this gift of forgiveness, we become more human and without it, we become less human and that may be why we can ‘’rejoice’’ at the death of another ?

  3. The celebration of Bin Laden's death and your post remind me of a scene from the movie 'Of Goods and Men', people were happy an extremist was killed but the priest prayed for the man.

    I think there's the 'just war' argument when the Bin Laden mission was carried out but it doesn't justify the celebration of this man's death. American lives were terribly affected by the action of this man, so I can understand the human reaction, but I pray that people will remember to forgive like Pope John Paul