Fr Federico Lombardi, the pope’s press spokesman, said in a statement earlier this week that we should not rejoice at the death of any human being (even though it was Osama Bin Laden). This is how he put it:
Osama bin Laden – as we all know – was gravely responsible for promoting division and hatred between peoples, causing the end of countless innocent lives, and of exploiting religions to this end.
Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of each and every one of us before God and before man, and hopes and commits himself so that no event be an opportunity for further growth of hatred, but for peace.
I have to say, these words gave me pause for thought, since to rejoice at the death of this truly evil man had indeed been my first impulse (and actually, even on reflection, is my second impulse, too). But pondering on Fr Lombardi’s words in the context of some of the more unbridled expressions of rejoicing seen on television news reports, outside the White House and in the streets of New York, one could see what he meant: it was not a pretty sight. Nevertheless, when President Obama (in an oration of great dignity and restrained power) ended his words by saying simply “Justice has been done”, I could not forbear to say simply: “Amen to that.”
Those words of Fr Lombardi’s, though, about behaving “so that no event be an opportunity for further growth of hatred” are right on target. That’s why the President is right not to publish the photographs of Osama’s body. (Incidentally, that’s how we should refer to him, as “Osama”: Arabic linguistic convention is to to refer to him as “Osama” or “Osama bin Laden”, not “bin Laden” alone, since “bin Laden” is just a patronymic (“son of”, as in Hebrew “Ben”), not a surname in the western manner.)
If the President published the photographs, they would undoubtedly be used by his followers for propaganda purposes, as “an opportunity for further growth of hatred”. We need at this point to think carefully about the result of our actions. Will those scenes of rejoicing so inflame some radicalised young Muslim that he commits some further atrocity? Who knows?
We have to understand the American mindset, of course. The attacks on 9/11 were a trauma that we can hardly understand, who lived through the Blitz (and yes, I did live through it myself, and have dim memories of being taken to the nearest air-raid shelter) during which every night many times the death toll of 9/11 might occur. This was the first time that such a slaughter had occurred on American soil: and a Hitler-figure, a charismatic incarnation of evil, without whom this atrocity would not have occurred, did exist. He had a name. We knew what he looked like. So how could his death be regarded as anything else but as a triumph of American arms and a source of satisfaction? When Hitler’s death was announced, my parents rejoiced; and they (and many others) never forgave Eamonn de Valera for paying a visit of condolence to the German Embassy in Dublin.
Presumably Dev thought that whether one approved of this particular Head of State or not, there were certain decencies to be observed. Already there are accusations that these decencies were not observed in Osama’s case. Muslim “scholars” have pronounced that burying a Muslim at sea is against Muslim religious law except in extremis. The Americans insist that Muslim practice was observed. But was it? Was an imam, maybe a Muslim chaplain to the US forces, involved in the funeral rites? They claim that it was: “The burial of bin Laden’s remains was done in strict conformance with Islamist precepts and practices,” said John Brennan, one of President Barack Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisers, according to one news report.
But were they?
“Islamic burial traditions call for several practices after one’s death,” said Alam Payind, director of the Middle East Studies Center at Ohio State [University]. The corpse must be washed by a same-sex cleric and wrapped in a simple cloth, called a kafan, to respect the dignity and privacy of the deceased. After the corpse has been prepared, prayers are offered for the forgiveness of the dead and the body is buried….
“Many Muslim authorities are outraged with the burial ceremony and believe bin Laden’s burial was in serious violation of Islamic tradition and lacked respect.
“Sheik Ahmed al-Tayeb of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque told the AP that bin Laden’s burial at sea ‘runs contrary to the principles of Islamic laws, religious values and humanitarian customs.’
“He said every effort must be made for in-ground burial, and he doesn’t believe the US made these efforts. “
It won’t quite do to say that he didn’t deserve any such consideration. Do not misunderstand me. The newspaper headline “Rot in Hell” may be gross in the extreme, but I can’t find it in me to condemn the feeling behind it. All the same, we need now to tread with great care; we are at a dangerous moment. The Islamic world is a tinder-box: rumours there can be invented and without any evidence to support them can be widely credited with an ease that we sceptical westerners can hardly understand (I speak as one who has lived and worked in a Muslim country).
Any military action in which a Muslim leader is killed by westerners will be seen by many as yet another Crusader outrage. Let’s all (especially in the US) calm down now. On reflection, most Muslim opinion will recall that this was not a man who deserved any kind of support from them. Until then, the less said by us Crusaders the better.