Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Learning to Lament

Where were you when you heard the news? Somehow the death of bin Laden has just become one of those life-changers like the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger or the attack on the Twin Towers. You are supposed to know where you were.

I was absorbed in a pottery project with the tv on in the background and Addie snuggling beside me. Brothers and Sisters was interrupted: Osama bin Ladin was murdered. Yippeee!? I guess I was supposed to be happy.

But I was not happy. No, my reaction was to feel horrified at the chipper tone of the announcers and quickly bored with the repetition of the non-details and even more non-critical analysis.

Mostly, I felt lonely and out of place.

When Rosa Parks died, people gathered on the mall to honor her death as an American hero; when Obama was inaugurated, we gathered to celebrate. This event resulted in some strange bastardization of the two: people elevated bin Laden to iconic status and went nuts with patriotic fever celebrating his death like some new era had just begun. It almost looked like joy.

But joy seems completely out of place because it doesn't fit well with hate.

Relief I can understand - especially given the continued fear of terrorism since 9/11. The peace of a conclusion - yes, that makes sense. It even seems reasonable to have a bit of pride that at last, we were able to outsmart this particular enemy. But joy? I can't put my finger on it, but it has made me sad and fearful about what has happened to this country.

I was grateful for the many friends who pointed to wise blogs that dampened the enthusiasm.
Here are a couple that I found particularly thoughtful.

Jim Wallis - sojourners
Kristen Breitweiser - Huffington Post - a 9/11 widow who challenges the celebratory atmosphere.

As I've spent the day troubled about our national reaction, I have been reminded of a lesson I learned from an ethics professor.

It is important to lament actions that are lamentable, even if you end up doing them.

He taught this by citing a study which showed that giving education about abortion to pregnant couples didn't change their minds about the abortion, but it did cause them to lament that decision. He hailed that as part of the process of being an ethical person.

At the time, I thought that was ridiculous. Who cares what their attitude would be - the important thing was the action alone, so I thought. I realize I was wrong. The events of these past few days make me realize that the attitude - especially toward something truly lamentable - matters.

Having been schooled in the plot to kill Hitler (Lutheran theologian Bonhoeffer was central to that plot), I understand the decision to kill bin Laden. I even think it was a good one, though there is something deep within me that resists murder as ever being a good decision. But the plot to kill Hitler was marked by sobriety and regret. I'm not seeing that here, at least not on the public face. And I am stuck in lament and regret that we have come to this.

What happened on Sept 11th was horrific, evil, and destructive. But in the past 10 years, our reaction has helped tighten the knot of terrorism, animosity and misguided violent solutions to a social problem. The result has been countless deaths, billions of misspent dollars, and the continued devastation of an entire region of the world. Yes, the tide may be shifting; yes, bin Laden's death may be part of that shift. But it doesn't make what happened on Sept 11 any less sad; nor does it make what has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan since then any more justified. Vengeance rings hollow.

The thing that I've been holding onto the most from all I've read was this simple distinction that a friend Tweeted: this is not celebration, it is catharsis.

I've tried to believe that, because catharsis is appropriate in a way that celebration is not. But it sure looks like celebration to me. I am glad that bin Laden is no longer on the loose. But I am not smiling.


  1. Thoughtful post, Sarah. So true that celebration does not appear to be the appropriate reaction to this grim business, even if we agree it is necessary business.

    You should check out this post on the New Republic: (http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/87785/better-angels-obama-bin-laden-lincoln-passover) Very similar sentiment.

    Here's my metaphor: we should react like a father who has just had disciplined his child, not like a father whose child has just made a game-winning shot.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this. You make a brother proud. -Jason

  2. Thanks jase! Warm little sister fuzzies over here :) And I like your metaphor. That gets it exactly.

    I will check out that New Republic article. - Sarah


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