By Symi Rom-Rymer
When President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden in the late hours of May 1st, the country breathed collective sigh of relief. Spontaneous celebrations broke out in front of The White House, at Ground Zero and in Times Square. College students mugging for the camera chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A!” There were even some reports of kegs. Eugene Robinson, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote the next day, “The flag-waving, horn-honking crowd that converged at the White House Sunday night was brimming with unrestrained joy, unmitigated patriotism and a sense of unlimited possibility—which meant Osama bin Laden had suffered not only death but defeat as well.”
The frat-party atmosphere, however, made others queasy. The sense of unease seems to come not so much from the question of whether it was right to kill Bin Laden, or even whether to rejoice at his death, but rather how to express that feeling. Several readers wrote in to Robinson’s weekly live chat on the Washington Post, expressing their ambivalence over the hyped-up atmosphere that seemed more in line, as one reader commented, with a sports game than with someone’s death. Robinson defended his position, saying, “I’m cheering. The man was a mass murderer—not a henchman, but the leader who ordered the 9/11 attacks, among other atrocities. I don’t usually celebrate death, but I’m making an exception.”
Conversely, President Obama—who arguably has the most reason to cheer—announced the news at a sober press conference in his typical calm, professorial style. The words that he said were explosive but there was no cheering, no fist pump and no ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner.
This ambivalence is not limited to the secular world. The Jewish religious response has been equally varied. Some, like Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center representing the Jewish Renewal movement in Philadelphia, have turned to the story of Passover as a guide for how to respond. In a recent New York Jewish Week article, he commented that although Jews narrowly escaped death at the hands of their Egyptian pursuers, God cautioned angels not to rejoice at the drowning in the Red Sea of the Egyptians who pursued the Jews escaping their bondage. They too were God’s creations, after all. According to the same article, others like Orthodox Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz teaches his yeshiva students that “most sources permit celebration of the death of a person who is ‘objectively evil’ as distinct from someone with whom an individual may have a dispute.”
Jews know what it means to have suffered at the hands of bloodthirsty tyrants, determined to exterminate them. The almost karmic timing of the killing of Bin Laden and Yom Ha’Shoah—the slaughter of innocents temporarily avenged by the death of a more contemporary mass murderer—has not gone unnoticed. Yet we should also recognize that even the death of an “objectively evil” person does not wipe clean the suffering he inflicted. Last week, I wrote about Sonia Reich, a woman who continues to be haunted by her childhood during the Holocaust, over sixty years ago. Those who lost family on September 11th or in the subsequent wars will be similarly haunted by their losses, even after the death of those responsible. Instead of celebrating our success with Bronx cheers, perhaps a more fitting response is a somber appreciation for what was done on our behalf. We may have won this battle but it has come at great human expense. And the war is not yet over.