“Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble.”
So says Proverbs 24:17, in a book that millions of Americans hold sacred. The Bible also says that you should love your enemy as yourself, and that vengeance is the Lord’s alone.
But all of that went out the window Sunday night and Monday, as news spread that American forces had killed Osama bin Laden. At Ground Zero in New York, site of the World Trade Center attacks that bin Laden masterminded, crowds sang the “hey, hey, good-bye” song that sports fans use to taunt their defeated foes. Borrowing another sports metaphor, one reveler held up a sign that said, “Obama 1, Osama 0.”
President Obama himself struck a solemn note as he announced bin Laden’s death, in a televised address from the White House. But outside, on Pennsylvania Avenue, the mood was merry. An estimated thousand people danced, waved flags, and chanted “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” They carried signs, too, including one which read, “Ding, Dong, Bin Laden is Dead.”
There is something deeply wrong with this picture. By celebrating death, even of someone as evil as bin Laden, we let our worst impulses trump what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” We look petty, juvenile, and small. And we should all be worried about that.
Let me be clear: I am relieved that Osama bin Laden is dead. He caused a lot of death himself, of course, and his own demise means that he won’t be able to wreak more havoc on the world.
Second, I recognize that revenge is a natural reaction to tragedy, violence, and injustice. Ever since Homer’s Illiad, where Achilles goes on a rampage to avenge the death of his beloved friend Patroclus, poets and playwrights have reminded us about the powerful role of vengeance in human affairs.
Time for sober reflection, not silly celebration
But a natural impulse isn’t necessarily a good one. Yes, we feel the need to exact revenge from our enemies. But our key religious scriptures as well as our greatest political leaders warn us against this dark human desire, which transmits our feuds and vendettas to future generations. Indeed, we are at our most human when we are resisting it.
That’s why Lincoln concluded his second inaugural address, in March 1865, by promising “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” Lincoln and his generation bore witness to the greatest bloodletting in American history; whereas fewer than 3,000 died in the World Trade Center attacks, over 600,000 would perish in the Civil War. But Lincoln rejected calls for revenge against the soon-to-be-defeated Confederacy. Instead, he called upon all Americans to recognize the essential humanity of us all.
And part of being human, Lincoln insisted, was recognizing our own intellectual and moral limitations. Even as he directed the most devastating war Americans had seen, Lincoln did not assume that his side had a monopoly on virtue. “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God,” Lincoln said, referring to the North and South, “and each invokes His aid against the other.... [L]et us judge not, that we be not judged.”
It would not be easy. But Lincoln understood that, too. That’s why he invoked our shared national destiny, insisting that America had something hugely important to teach the world. To Lincoln, and to millions of Americans since, the United States represented “the last best hope of earth.” In striving to meet his charge, we would establish a model and an example for people everywhere.
And last night, in celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden, we lost sight of that responsibility. And don’t think the rest of the world didn’t notice, either. Remember when Palestinians danced on the streets of the West Bank, to rejoice over the World Trade Center attacks? That’s what we looked like last night to many of the very people whose hearts and minds we’ve spent billions to win.
But there’s still time to make it right. The death of Osama bin Laden should be an occasion for sober reflection, not for silly celebration. We should use it to ask what we have won, what we have lost, and what remains to be done. Anything less will do violence to our own better angels, and to our best national aspirations.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author, most recently, of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory.”