THE PASSING OF A MONSTER
I will always associate the death of Bin Laden with the very special day on which it occurred: Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Earlier that afternoon, I gave a talk at an interfaith gathering in which dozens of Jews, Christians and Muslims were assembled to remember the lessons that the Holocaust can teach all of humanity. I was honored to serve as the event’s keynote speaker and to share with the group (and with a Voice of America reporter) a story about my prized possession: a book I inherited from my grandmother and which I would gaze at in horror when visiting her apartment as a child. The book’s title is “The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror,” and what is most amazing about it is that it was published in New York in 1933, the same year the Nazis came to power.
The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror tells us much of what we need to know about why the Jewish people require a state of their own. It was fool’s gold for Jews to feel at home in a place like Weimar Germany, where by all accounts they were very successful and assimilated … until the election of 1932. Nor ought they feel permanently secure in the good old US of A, where they comprise all of 2% of the population. It was here in America where our relatively progressive President, Franklin Roosevelt, was asked to accept a boat of Jews that were fleeing the Nazis six years after my Brown Book was published in New York. So what did Roosevelt do? Sent the asylum seekers back to Europe, where most would ultimate die at the hands of the Nazis.
Clearly, if history tells us one thing it is that Jews cannot count on being protected when they comprise but a small minority of the population. Of course, that is not to say they’re secure when they’re in the majority either. But modern history offers only a few decades to prove that point, whereas it offers many centuries to prove the other.
In speaking to an interfaith audience, I discussed how one of the Holocaust’s chief lessons was that we all need to be Zionists, even those of us who are Arab. But I spoke too about the flip side of that lesson: that we all need to be Palestinian Nationalists as well. We must care about our cousins, the innocent residents of the West Bank who are inconvenienced for hours every day as they move in and out of check points simply to earn a living, or the innocent residents of Gaza, who have had to resort to black markets simply to get some of the foodstuffs that the rest of us take for granted. They understandably seek the same autonomy we Jews praise every year during Passover. Why is it that autonomy our birthright, and not theirs?
Just as we Jews praise the “Righteous Gentiles” among the Germans who helped our ancestors survive the Holocaust, I argued, so must we become “Righteous Jews” and take on the cause of Palestinian autonomy. “Two states for two peoples.” That is the key goal – that and fostering an understanding that these are not merely two peoples but two sets of first cousins. Until we realize that the Israelis and the Palestinians are close relatives, I contended, true peace will always elude us.
After a few of us spoke, the gathering broke into small groups. In my group, people started wondering aloud about whether the God-awful persecution we saw in Nazi Germany could ever happen here in the United States. We easily could have focused on the past and dwelled on the experiences of the Native Americans, African Americans and Japanese Americans. But instead, the group turned towards the immediate future, and started talking about our nation’s issues with Islamophobia. And that’s when it hit me: the Islamophobia in this country could have been a Hell of a lot more institutionalized, widespread, and devastating had it not been for the fact that a few days after 9/11, President George W. Bush came out in support of the Islamic faith. So I pointed that out -- and to my pleasant surprise, the other folks in the group agreed – that all of us who are friends of Islam have Bush to thank for his post 9/11 statements.
Some may take for granted that Bush would say the kind words he had to say about the religion of Islam shortly after 9/11. Truly, though, he didn’t have to say them. He could easily have played the demagogue and spoken about how the root cause of what blew up the Towers wasn’t Al Qaeda per se but the inherently violent and pre-modern nature of Islam itself. Immediately, Bush could have found an amen chorus on Fox News and on Talk Radio. Who knows? He might have found majority support for that position throughout most of the country. Yet he didn’t go there. Instead, he made such statements as the following, which comes from his address to Congress on 9/20/01: “The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics, a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam.” He took the high road, and we all have to thank him for it.
I was thinking about that a bit when I woke up the morning after Holocaust Remembrance Day, turned on my computer, and read for the first time about the death of Bin Laden. My first reaction was joy -- not exuberance, but a more restrained sense of contentment. My next reaction, especially after listening to some of the details of how the raid was planned and went down, was to feel appreciation for our President and the heroic Navy Seals who carried out the mission. I wondered whether the Republicans who have been relentlessly criticizing Obama, just like most of us Democrats would skewer Bush over the years, would see it in their hearts to express appreciation for a job well done. Surely, I thought, no one could deny that Obama handled this situation extremely deftly; he could easily have shared our intelligence with our “Pakistani allies,” and, as a result, allowed someone in that Government to tip off Bin Laden in advance of the raid. Isn’t that the way a progressive President who decries unilateral military action would stereotypically be expected to function? Thank God President Obama didn’t take that path. Hopefully, over the next several weeks, more and more of our President’s critics will grudgingly express their appreciation not only for the fact that he was able successfully to oversee this raid, but also for the classy way in which he has carried out its aftermath. This has truly been the high point of his Presidency to date, and I don’t offer that as faint praise.
During the past week, I have watched closely the reaction to the raid both on the right and the left. I have seen the scenes of Americans celebrating in the streets as if their team had just won the Super Bowl. And I have heard friends and celebrities whose politics are well to the left not only criticize the “crass” public celebrations of a man’s death, but also chastize the Administration for failing to take Bin Laden alive and try him in an American federal district court.
Personally, though, I don’t see the point of all that criticism.
There’s another benefit, you see, in having Bin Laden die on Holocaust Remembrance Day. It should serve as a reminder that some people aren’t fully human. They’re also monsters. And by virtue of their occupation (killing lots and lots and lots and lots of innocent people for the sake of some twisted ego boost), they give up the right to life. Had someone taken Hitler out in the 20s or early 30s, s/he would have done the world an immense service. And if I could go back in time and do that deed, I wouldn’t second guess a single one of you for taking to the streets and celebrating. (Feel free to find a ton of relatives who miraculously were brought back to life and celebrate with them.)
To be sure, because Hitler was part human, and because he who takes a human life is like one who kills an entire world (a statement that can be found both in the Talmud and the Qu’ran), I don’t think I personally would be out in the streets partying even for the premature death of Hitler. For me, killing is killing – it is never a legitimate cause for out-and-out exuberance. But if you’re talking about the death of an honest-to-God monster, a murderer of thousands or millions of innocent lives, my stand against celebrating death is purely a matter of style. After all, we do not owe a monster like that any sympathy.
Let me put it another way. No, I wouldn’t want my daughters publicly celebrating the death of a Hitler or a Bin Laden. But then again, I wouldn’t want them eating animal flesh either (like a hamburger at McDonalds). And if you were to ask me which is the greater wrong, eating animal flesh or celebrating the death of a monster, I’d take eating the hamburger every time. You see, I have inordinately more sympathy for the death of any cow I see off the interstate than I have for Adolph Hitler or Osama Bin Laden. And if in taking that position, I part ways with the venerable rabbis of the past who teach that all people are somewhat sacred because we come from God, my response is that such a statement applies as well to the cows, chicken and fish that are slaughtered in kosher butcheries all over the world. And I have yet to hear about a cow, chicken or fish who not only was responsible for the killing of several thousand people but was also plotting for new and different ways to kill many thousands more.
Moreover, for all of you who are deeply sorry that we have been deprived of watching “Bin Laden in New York” as America’s sequel to “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” get over it. There is no way that monster could have received a fair trial in the United States. There is no way that any trial of that monster could have occurred without a cost to the public of millions of dollars (money that is surely better spent elsewhere). And there are numerous ways in which such a trial and the publicity it engendered could have resulted in an enormous amount of additional killing. Martyrdom can be quite a motivator, and the longer that trial, the more of a martyr he would have become to his followers.
To be sure, like most Americans, I believe deeply in a criminal’s right to a trial by jury. But Bin Laden is not just another criminal. To me, he is no different than an enemy soldier who is perpetually firing bullets at us. His entire existence is a singular act of war. No, he wasn’t strictly speaking firing bullets when he was captured, but he apparently was perpetually generating ideas as to how to kill as many innocent Americans as possible. He would have done that as long as he lived – in captivity or outside of it. And the idea that it is our sacred obligation to extend that wretched, dangerous life is truly political correctness run amuck.
(I continue to decry capital punishment. But like Emerson pointed out, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.)
So yes, I had to roll the ol’ eyes a bit at the reaction on the left to the way that Bin Laden was executed without a trial and to the way his death was greeted with public euphoria here in America. But what more than just annoyed me was the despicable statements that were released this week among certain representatives of the Palestinian people. First, Ismail Haniyeh, the Prime Minister of the Hamas Government that controls Gaza, was reported by Reuters to have said the following to reporters: “We condemn the assassination and the killing of an Arab holy warrior. … We regard this as a continuation of the American policy based on oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood."
Then, a statement was released that was widely attributed to the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, the so-called “military wing” of the Fatah, which represents the more moderate of the Palestinian parties. That statement was reported by the Atlantic magazine to have included the following: “The Islamic nation awoke to a catastrophe the reports of the Shahid - (Martyr-) death of the Sheikh, Jihad-fighter Osama bin Laden, in a treacherous manner, by the gangs of the heretics and those who stray. The path irrigated with the blood of its leaders is the path of victory, Allah willing. If Abu Abdallah [Bin Laden] was killed, then he merited the Shahada (Death for Allah) which he had sought, and inscribed with his blood the landmarks of Jihad, leaving behind an entire generation that follows the path of Sheikh Osama.”
The next day, another statement was issued by Al-Aqsa indicating that the group does not endorse that statement and, in fact, takes no public position about the death of Osama Bin Laden since it bears no relationship to Palestine. Tell me, though, what does it say about the lack of readiness for peace among the Palestinians that one of its most prominent groups is publicly praising Bin Laden as a holy warrior and another is afraid to take any public position as at all? I am a tireless advocate for peace between these two peoples, but even I have to take note of what this says about the Palestinians’ readiness for peace. Put another way, if they CAN make peace with Bin Laden perhaps they CANNOT make peace with Israel … at least not yet.
Someone needs to give the Hamas and Al-Aqsa Martryrs’ Brigades a few copies of the Brown Book of the Hitler Terror. There surely aren’t many copies of that book around, and I count myself fortunate to have one. It will always remind me to work for peace. And it will always remind me to mourn the victims of war and injustice. Osama Bin Laden is neither.