May we celebrate somebody’s death?

I admit it: when I woke up this morning to the headline “Osama Bin Laden Killed“, I reacted with surprise (about the manhunt still being actively pursued) and jubilation, as well as admiration at the execution of the operation by US intelligence and the US military.

But is it morally permissible to celebrate somebody’s death?

  1. Let’s first get religion out of the way because I don’t believe in any: Some religious people say that only god and not man may take lives. Other religious people say that god is omnipotent, so that we must assume that men who kill are controlled by him. After all, he can’t kill everyone by lightning. So, as always, religion gives no clear guidance at all.
  2. Law is no guidance either because
    1.  it is similar to religion in its contentiousness,
    2. most people who will immediately tell you that “the killing of Osama Bin Laden was clearly illegal” won’t even be able to tell you which domestic or international law applies,
    3. law mainly deals with the act of the killing, not with the subsequent death, and
    4. we don’t know the circumstances of the death. We don’t know if it was a targeted killing or Mr Bin Laden died while trying to resist arrest or in a fire fight. Without knowing the facts, nobody can apply the law to them. (Although I would argue that it was most likely not a targeted killing because that could have been carried out with much less risk by a drone strike or a bombing raid.)
  3. This leads to an important distinction: the one between the killing and the death. Although one results in the other, we can separate them. This becomes apparent if you imagine the case of Mr Bin Laden dying from measles or from old age. Our reactions and evaluation might be quite different.
  4.  Any premature death means a life cut short. Most deaths will result in sorrow for family members and friends, or in this case followers. Children have lost their father today.
  5. What if the death of one person saves other lives? This is uncertain, because although Mr Bin Laden has admitted (in his taped messages) the responsibility for the murder of thousands, we don’t know if he has still been actively involved in terrorism. As to Mr Bin Laden inspiring radicalism, his death might not bring this to an end. But the moral problem remains, because the burden of saving other people’s lives cannot be put on one person against that person’s will.
  6. And on this subject, the deceased’s will, it is that we have to return to the circumstances leading to his death: It was Mr Bin Laden himself, a confessed mass-murderer who not only prompted the 10-year long manhunt for him, but who chose to live a life of battle, conflict and war. This choice doesn’t necessarily ask for death, but it increases the chances of it dramatically. One could even argue that by resisting arrest, Mr Bin Laden in effect committed suicide through the hands of the US military, something which would be in line with his rants about martyrdom.

Every lost life – even that of the most heinous criminal – brings sorrow over people who have not deserved it. The death of no one warrants the public jubilation that we have seen being sparked by news of Mr Bin Laden’s death. But there are cases where I can understand – and even share – a certain sense of happiness and satisfaction. This case is one of them.

About Andreas Moser

You will most likely find me in the forest, next to the lake, reading a book. Just follow the cigar smoke!
This entry was posted in Law, Philosophy, Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to May we celebrate somebody’s death?

  1. John Erickson says:

    As an American, I should be joining my countrymen (and women) in mad celebration. I will honestly admit to a certain small thrill when they broke into our local news with the information. But I cannot get overly excited about Bin Laden’s death for reasons you touch on. First off, there’s no proof he’s been directly connected to anything for the last few months, and perhaps even years. The myth of Al-Qaeda as a unitary force is just that – the various branches in various countries have never shown any real organisation or co-operation, beyond some border-crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And his death may bring about more attacks, which is definitely a negative outcome.
    But that’s the military student in me. As a person, am I happy he’s dead? Fairly so – he was our enemy, and noble as I try to be, I do have the flaw of patriotism. Am I jubilant? No, because it is a symbolic victory at best, and may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory at worst. Will I celebrate? No. Because our soldiers will keep on dying, and until our soldiers, ALL our soldiers from EVERY country, come home from these wars, no one enemy death is worth a party. That will have to wait until our last brave soldiers are safely on their home soil.
    Then we can party like brain-damaged test monkeys! :D

  2. Videris says:

    I read your article. If you want to take Religion and Law out of the argument for finding the ‘moral’ justification for celebrating someone’s death, then you have effectively removed any means of doing so.

    What are morals used for? Establishing societal norms. How are those norms enforced? Through religion and law. Any non-enforceable societal norm is not a moral, but a judgement. Those judgments come either as shame or guilt; external or internal.

    The question you asked was, “Is it Morally Permissible to celebrate someone’s death?” The answer is yes, because we permit it in our society. There is no law or religion preventing us from doing so. The question then becomes, “Are we then free from any shame or guilt from celebrating someone’s death?”

    Shame comes from societies or individuals telling someone else that they are wrong. Guilt comes from individuals telling themselves that they are wrong, usually based on societal expectations.

    So, if you are feeling guilt or if you are wanting to dispense shame, those are your choices and you are free to make them. Both of them are permissible in a free and open society, just as it is permissible here to express relief after a national victory.

    Videris @ Cynical Dependency – http://videris.wordpress.com/

  3. I think I am going to help clear things up a bit or confuse you even more, but I would like to touch on a couple of your points:
    “most people who will immediately tell you that “the killing of Osama Bin Laden was clearly illegal” won’t even be able to tell you which domestic or international law applies,”
    We are at war and during a time of war people die. bin Laden was the principle reason we are at war. He fired the first shot Sept 11, 2001, actually before that. This isn’t like walking up to someone in a shopping mall or on the street and putting a bullet in their head. bin Laden Declared war on the U.S. in 1996.

    we don’t know the circumstances of the death. We don’t know if it was a targeted killing or Mr Bin Laden died while trying to resist arrest or in a fire fight. Without knowing the facts, nobody can apply the law to them. (Although I would argue that it was most likely not a targeted killing because that could have been carried out with much less risk by a drone strike or a bombing raid.)
    The fact is he was killed in a fire fight. Read Here
    Any premature death means a life cut short. Most deaths will result in sorrow for family members and friends, or in this case followers. Children have lost their father today.
    In this case who cares, he and al qaida had no compassion for the 3000 plus people he killed in the World Trade Center and Pentagon. He planned a deliberate attack on innocent lives. Mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, who we’re wiped out in an instant. I personally don’t know anyone (myself included) who didn’t lose a loved one on that day. Think about the Children who lost their mother or father that day. The baby who was born without a father who died that day.

  4. bwkairos says:

    I understand your sentiment regarding the death of bin Laden–if we as a nation celebrate the death of another human then we might as well be the Greeks or Romans cheering on so called gladiators to dispatch the other (UFC rings a bell). Regardless of the motives, celebrating violence will only perpetuate violence. I won’t argue if it was right or wrong to kill him; we all know his past and we can only speculate on his hypothetical future at best, so there’s only a superficial debate there. Videris brings up some interesting points as well, except individuals do have the capacity to establish their own morals for their own, individual use.

    That being said I’m glad he’s gone–for what he’s done and because now his name can’t be used for fear mongering anymore…though I’m sure there will be a replacement for that role in the near future.

  5. Pingback: How Osama bin Laden was really found | Publish or Perish – Andreas Moser's Blog

  6. Max says:

    All sins are crimes but not all crimes are sins. We must forgive all sins and punish the crimes. Osama has been forgiven by the families of the attack but his death is the punishment. He resisted arrest otherwise he wud ve been given a fairhearing. As for who was responsible for the attacks, he claimed he was, not only for the Sept 11 but a host of others. Indeed he placed a wrong impression on Islam but the Muslims continue to torment the world.
    Muslims pls come out in protest tell this radicals this is nt the path of Islam if ya all strongly believe they’re wrong.
    As for reloicing for a death, it is very wrong. No one must rejoice over any dead. The Creator shall be the Judge. My neighbours(some)condemn the act of terrorism while others remain mute. I am nt a Muslim but I do no think its the will of the creator to approve the killing of another in such irrational manner! I don’t even feel like ending dis.

  7. Pingback: How different countries catch their “most wanted” | The Happy Hermit

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