What is the Jewish view about killing Osama bin Laden? Should Jews joyously celebrate his death? Assuming he was in fact unarmed should the Seals have taken him prisoner in acccordance with Jewish values?
There is no question in my mind that the killing of bin Laden was more than justified by Jewish law. As a matter of self-defense, he was plotting additional attacks on a regular basis, and with his track record of blood and pain, there was every reason to believe that at least some of those plans would end in the deaths of innocents. Also, having him as a prisoner would be far more dangerous than having him dead, because his imprisonment would attract violent retaliation and particularly kidnappings, with demands that he be set free or that hostages would be killed.
Further, in Jewish tradition, you have examples of people who are killed to serve as an example to others. You find this in the case of the gatherer of twigs who was the first to violate explicit Jewish law in the desert, you find it in the case of Akhan who took from the spoil of Jericho, and you find it in other cases as well. If anybody should serve as a model, UbL was certainly one.
As for the joyous and even raucous celebration, Jewish tradition is unequivocal: "At the fall of your enemy, do not rejoice." There are several reasons why this is true. First, is the scene of people chanting, "U-S-A" really the image you want to be forever associated with this very serious moment? (any taking of life must be serious).
Second, this is not condign justice. bin Laden's death did not in any way equal the suffering that he caused. As such, we have a right and perhaps an obligation to challenge God himself as to why the justice was incomplete, but if we rejoice we lose that challenge. We also lose the impetus for self-reflection towards analyzing how such an individual came to that type of influence in this world and how we can prevent that again.
Finally, engaging in raucous celebration is the first step towards cruelty, particularly since the relatives of the victims were not rejoicing in that fashion. Tragic events as well as joyous events are tests of our moral fiber. Usama bin Laden, as evil as he was, and as much as killing him was appropriate, was still a human being. Raucous celebration just opens the door to the acceptance of revenge and cruelty as appropriate behaviors. That is not something we should want to endorse.
Answered by: Rabbi --- Not Active with JVO Suspended
The killing of Osama Bin Laden by the Seals was justified whether he was armed or not. Bin Laden was the number one wanted terrorist on the U.S. Most Wanted list and there was a clear order of "shoot to kill." The U.S. had very good intelligence that there were future terrorist attacks being planned by Al Qaeda and taking out the mastermind was in line with the value of pikuach nefesh (saving other souls). This intelligence was confirmed with the material the Seals took from Bin Laden's compound which demonstrated that he was indeed planning future attacks. Had he been unarmed, taking him hostage would have been a poor strategic choice and would likely have led to more deaths of innocent civilians around the world. Generally, it is not a Jewish value to shoot an unarmed individual to death, but I think that the majority of fair-minded people will reason that this was a true exception to the rule.
Now on to a completely separate matter: Should Jews joyously celebrate his death? I don't think it's necessary to separate out Jews in this question. Therefore, I'll answer whether it was appropriate for Americans to celebrate the way some did and what the Jewish take on that is from a value perspective. I think that what we witnessed at such places as Ground Zero, outside the White House and at Times Square in New York City was a nation's collective relief and celebration at the death of a villain who unleashed such havoc on our country. I don't believe that most of those celebrants in the streets were celebrating the death of a human being, but rather some measure of closure from the horrific 9/11 event. Americans singing and dancing in the streets, jubilant over the killing of Osama Bin Laden, brings to mind the celebrations seen in the Arab world after the deaths of innocent civilians. However, the difference of course is that Americans were peacefully celebrating a victory on the "War on Terror" when a criminal was killed, while Muslim extremist have celebrated the deaths of innocents. The bottom line is that our celebration should have been measured because we don't want the rest of the world to think we are celebrating a killing and we also don't want to raise the ire of Al Qaeda tempting them to avenge Bin Laden's death.
So, while there may be those who found it unethical for the Seals to have killed an unarmed Bin Laden, I believe that this isolated instance was in accordance with Jewish values. Further, the United States does not have a reputation as celebrating in the streets after criminals are killed. This, again, was an isolated instance in which the collective emotions of New Yorkers and others around our country led them to celebrate what felt like a victory in the "War on Terror."
The death of Osama bin Laden marks a psychological turning point in the War on Terror. Since 9/11 he has been the face of the enemy as we struggled to recover from that attack and as we have fought to overcome the threat posed by subsequent attacks. It is important to recall that his periodic video threats provoked world-wide alerts. The death toll from his activity preceded 9/11 and has left victims across the globe.
Was killing him justified? I don’t have an easy way to think about this – his crimes so outstrip anything else in my experience. I am drawn to this verse of Torah. “When one schemes against another and kills him treacherously, you shall take him from my very altar to be put to death.” (Exodus 21:14) Rashi’s comment, ad loc, distinguishes this killing as deliberate and beyond redemption. This is not a death that occurred by accident, or by decree. In such a case not even a Cohen presenting an holy offering at the altar is spared. Osama bin Laden who targeted innocents around the world surely would fall into this category.
Would it have been better to arrest him and bring him before a court? I agree with those who argue that his incarceration would have encouraged his followers to stage terrorist attacks to try to win his release through violence and intimidation. While the hope is that a free and open trial would reveal his inhumanity and deter others from such barbaric behavior, I suspect that the result would encourage others to emulate his actions. The Talmud teaches (Sanhedrin 72a), ‘If someone comes to slay you, rise up early to kill that person.” I believe that killing Osama bin Laden forestalls the possibility of other deaths that might come as his followers sought to free him or raise his status as a martyr.
The public response to the news of Osama bin Laden death raises other issues. In contrast to the question of how we deal with him as a murderer and terrorist, this concerns the way we conduct our own lives in the most ethical manner possible. The celebration is understandable. Stalking Bin Laden had been a decade long quest and his final demise released a great deal of pent-up anxiety. Proverbs 11:10 states that ‘When the wicked perish there are shouts of joy”, so perhaps our celebrations are normal and expected.
An alternate voice, from later in Proverbs (24:17), expresses a more sober tone: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when your enemy stumbles.” This verse focuses not on the external, but on the internal. If this celebration results in a coarsening of our own heart, leading us to see some humans as less than human, then it lowers our own humanity. Osama bin Laden was a despicable person, but still God’s creation. In his death may we find the paths that lead us to celebrate the holiness of life, not its degradation.
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