American troops have killed Osama bin Laden, and the United States is right to take pride in their achievement. That’s my view, and the view of most others you’ll ask. Upon hearing the news last night, Americans congregated outside the White House and crowded into Times Square to celebrate; even in Harvard Yard, many of our classmates gathered to wave flags and sing the national anthem. But a few of us refuse to celebrate, as the smattering of contrary status updates on Facebook reveals. Most of these critics seem to agree with Sandra Korn, who argues in a recent HPR editorial that dispensing retribution as our troops did is wrong, and celebrating any human’s death is improper. Are such critics right?
Certainly not. In certain circumstances, we are decidedly justified in celebrating the fulfillment of justice through retribution. Bringing about justice is a complex task, but the notion itself is simple enough. Justice is giving each what he or she deserves. The doling out of just deserts—whether in the form of medicine to the sick, or retribution to the utterly wicked—is the core of justice. Attempting to pursue retributive justice is, very often, impossible and counterproductive: hence the unequal application of the death penalty to minorities, and other such lapses. But the central idea itself, of restoring moral equilibrium as best we can, is a commitment integral to our moral consciousness, and one that is fundamentally sound. If the notion of desert has any significance, then, we should not hesitate to say that an unrepentant mass murderer deserves death. And celebrating the justice long due bin Laden’s victims, however unpleasant the task itself was, is something we should not be ashamed to do. This is not to say we should celebrate every instance of fitting retribution. Even when capital punishment is dispensed fairly, for example, the action being punished is often the product of deeply regrettable life circumstances; in the most cases, we should take no glee in such punishment. But when the person being punished is completely, unequivocally evil, this logic does not apply. No life circumstance excuses, even in part, the mass slaughter of innocents. To feel joy upon such a monster’s demise is natural, and quite alright—it is joy for his victim’s memories, and for the vindication of justice itself.
This is all the more true because of who Osama bin Laden was. Not only did he murder thousands of Americans, but the ideology that led him to do so was one aimed at core ideals that Americans should genuinely take great pride in. The ideal of equality, as hard as it is to achieve, is integral to our national sense of self—it is the beating heart of our most vigorous debates, like the constitutional controversy over gay marriage. One need not mention the place of homosexuals, or women, in Osama bin Laden’s vision of the world. We should take pride in such ideals not because they are American ideals, but because they are morally admirable and deeply just. And, consequently, we should take pride when America stands up for them. We disagree, sometimes intractably, about what those ideals entail, but our national history has proved us committed to them, often at the cost of our blood. We are especially committed to the ideal of equality when it involves equal freedom, over one’s body and property and life choices. No one should doubt that Osama bin Laden was an enemy of equality, and freedom, and the rest of those overused, truly important words. In going after him, the United States affirmed the importance of those ideals—and the importance of justice for our dead, murdered pitilessly and en masse. In killing bin Laden, American soldiers secured that justice. So celebrate (and sing that hilariously profane song from Team America) in good conscience. The U.S. has every reason to be grateful for this success, and proud.
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