I have been thinking about the momentous events of this past weekend – the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the architect of 9/11 and of various embassy bombings, the ostensible head of Al Qaida who has eluded capture or even substantial detection for decades, stretching back to the Clinton administration. He has been a pot-stirrer for radicalized sentiments in parts of the Muslim world, a catalyzing force behind untold numbers of acts of violence resulting in the deaths of who knows how many innocents throughout both the Muslim and western world. A formidable foe, conducting global operations of terror from behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy. And now, he is dead, executed by an elite team of highly trained and courageous Navy Seals in the compound that had become his hiding place, a few miles from the capital of Pakistan.
So what are we to think on the occasion of the death of a self-declared enemy who had exacted such a cost in his enmity? At one level, rejoicing is in order – whether revenge or justice or punishment, the universe feels like it has tilted a bit closer to center after having been knocked off-kilter by the atrocities of his terrorism. We certainly have warrant and precedent. Those who suffered the loss of loved ones as a result of his planning are more than justified in celebration – even though, according to one such celebrant, it is an empty reminder of loss deeper than can be filled by the death of one or hundred.
At another level, it is naïve to think that his death is the end of anything but a symbol – a powerful symbol, but probably not a tide-turning symbol. Al Qaida has long since fragmented into cells scattered all over the world, untraceable, it seems, except in the trails of terror. Injustice has been co-opted by multiple other groups and individuals who now traffic in terror on local, regional, and global scales. The principalities and powers who are our real enemy continue to wreak their special brand of destruction in systems of evil world-wide – most of whom have no need of the elaborate secrecy, so confident are they in the brute strength of their unconscionable acts of violence against their own people.
As one struggling disciple of Jesus, I find myself ambivalent. Frankly, I am glad the principalities have one less soldier in the battle. If any man deserved to die, he did. My ambivalence comes not from the general principle as much as from the specific death. He, too, was a man. Now, lost to redemption. And the degree to which I wish any man damnation, is the degree to which I don’t comprehend the horror that is hell.