While sitting in my common room Sunday night, I checked my phone to see a missed call from a buddy of mine at the Naval Academy. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. Deciding that I would call him back the next day, I opened my laptop and saw the same friend had just posted a status. It was simple, but shocking: “Osama is DEAD!!!!!” I thought it was a hoax at first and immediately went to the New York Times. But the status was not a lie. Osama was dead. Soon my phone was ringing off the hook. Three friends from West Point texted me, then my friends in ROTC began planning a victory party at the Street, then a second victory party. I was overwhelmed as I heard screaming echoing across Mathey Courtyard.
On May 1, 2011, Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden, perhaps the most infamous terrorist of all time on a night raid in the heart of Pakistan. For Princeton, and most of America, it was a time for exuberant celebration. Across campus, shouts of “USA! USA!” and “America Fuck Yeah” roared. It was perhaps the happiest hour in the Global War on Terror.
But I could not bring myself to join my friends on the Street. I could not bring myself to toast the death of a mass murderer. I was stuck with only one thought in my head: the memories of the 9000 Americans who have died as a result of Osama bin Laden’s attack. How do they fit into the chants, toasts, and flag waving? Isn’t this night all about them, not us? Shouldn’t we be somberly honoring the souls this monster has taken from the Earth?
It is only natural, given the trauma of 9/11 that most people would celebrate. It seems that after 10 years of constant warfare we have finally brought justice to the evil mastermind. After all, on September 11, 2001, roughly 3,000 innocent men, women and children died. Since then, roughly 4,500 US soldiers have died in Iraq and 1,500 in Afghanistan. As a soldier in the US Army ROTC, I cannot help but be proud of my brothers and sisters who are currently fighting these wars. I especially cannot be more proud of the 20 or so Navy Seals that conducted an almost flawless raid to rid the world of an evil man. I believe that everyone in America should be proud today, knowing that justice has found bin Laden.
The fact that I was so proud made my feelings of remorse for the victims so much harder to reconcile. I so desperately wanted to feel the urge to celebrate, but couldn’t. How could I drink with my friends and feel that I was respecting the memory of those lost? I began talking to my friends and roommates to see if I could flush out an answer to the weird feeling that was developing in the pit of my stomach. As we talked, I began to realize why I was bothered by the drunken revelry. It feels wrong to be cheering at a hanging.
I continued to think it over. Osama bin Laden deserved to die. I would have preferred that he have stood trial as a murderer, but I understand that military operations have to deal with realities on the ground. His death is an event that will be forever engraved into our memories. Our grandchildren will probably ask us what living through the Arab revolutions and the killing of Osama bin Laden was like. Ultimately, Osama bin Laden was a murderer. And the operation against him was the execution promised to him by our laws. It was this realization that brought my feeling into clarity. If Osama was an executed criminal, then celebrating his death as if it were V-J Day in 1945 should feel weird. After all, we didn’t have street celebrations after the Nuremberg Trials, and we didn’t toast to the execution of Saddam Hussein.
Eventually as I kept letting the victory celebrations stew inside my head, my mind began to wander towards a story I learned in Hebrew school going up. After God drowned the Egyptian army in the Sea of Reeds, the Hebrews were singing and celebrating the demise of their oppressors. God then told Moses and the Hebrews, “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you sing songs.” I now understand what the Bible means by this statement. Destroying and killing is necessary. However, enjoying killing or esteeming killing is problematic. Certainly, from the Hebrew’s point of view, their Egyptian masters deserved to die. But to enforce justice is different from rejoicing in the fall of the enemy.
Scripture put my mind at rest, and I’m glad I didn’t join my friends at the street: it would have been wrong to toast to death. Although I still understand why my friends felt the need to rejoice over bin Laden’s demise, I still think that we as a community need to consider what we are celebrating. The wars in the Middle East are not over—far from it. The death of this murderer is an important stepping stone to the discrediting of religious extremism around the world, but it is not an end. We must remember that there is far more work to be done before we truly honor those who have died due to the attacks on 9/11.
Ultimately, this day is for those who died. Justice, so long in coming, has been served to Osama bin Laden. But to me, this event will be a sobering reminder of just how much work we must do to fulfill our promises of justice to those who have died. Only by honoring those promises can we truly celebrate the death of this murderer.