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Tuesday, 3 May 2011

A Jewish Response to the Death of a Mass Murderer

How do I respond to the death of Osama Bin Laden? Not being an expert on the workings of Al Qaida, I obviously cannot know how significant his death is in the terrorist movement that has been responsible for thousands of deaths worldwide. Is Al Qaida a Hydra that gets stronger every time a head is removed? Or is it a movement whose rapid growth based around one man’s ideology will be matched by its rapid demise as he dies? Of course, the Hydra was killed even though it grew stronger and, of course, even if Al Qaida dies it doesn’t mean the end to terrorism, but the point is that few of us can know what effect this world-changing death will have. So instead of pontificating about the effects on the movement, we can at least discuss how we react to the death of a terrorist from a Jewish perspective.

In the US, news of his death was greeted with cheering in the streets of New York and Washington, two cities profoundly affected by bin Laden. But I have always found such actions distasteful. When terrorist attacks occur and individuals in the Middle East celebrate, I find it similarly distasteful and I do so because the Bible specifically tells us (Proverbs 24:17) “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls.” When the Bible celebrates military victory, it’s in the context of an exposition on God’s greatness in the victory. It doesn’t focus on the victory itself. Thus Midrash tells us that when the ministering angels start celebrating as the Egyptians drown in the Sea of Reeds, God rebukes them saying, “The works of My hands are drowning in the Sea, and you would utter song in My presence!” (Talmud: Megillah 10b, Sanhedrin 39b). So strong is the dislike of celebrating the death of our enemies that it is said that we do not sing full Hallel on the last day of Pesach in order to not celebrate the death of the Egyptians. And, of course, at the Seder when we dip our finger in the wine to count the plagues, we never lick the finger for fear that we might derive any pleasure from the suffering of others, even our enemies.

So it would seem, as many an author has already provided online, that Judaism absolutely condemns the celebration of the death of others, even of wicked enemies. But, as always, it’s not that simple because the Bible also says, “When the righteous prosper the city exults; when the wicked perish there are shouts of joy” (Proverbs 11:10). Our quotation about the ministering angels from above is challenged by some Rabbis in Talmud – Megillah 10b has Rabbi Elazar saying that “God does not rejoice but causes others to rejoice” while Sanhedrin 39b puts these words in the mouth of Rabbi Yose bar Chanina. In fact, the Biblical quotation that accompanies this statement is quite convincing, so it could be said that while God does not rejoice, we do have permission to do so.

How do we hold together all these texts? How can we reconcile us being told not to rejoice when our enemy stumbles (Proverbs 24) with it being pointed out that when the wicked perish there are shouts of joy (Proverbs 11)? How do we hold texts in which God rebukes the angels for celebrating the death of the wicked with texts that says that while God does not rejoice, God can cause others to rejoice (Talmud: Megillah and Sanhedrin)? My answer is that Proverbs 11 is talking about what comes naturally to us. When a very close friend of mine was murdered nearly a decade ago, the most helpful question someone asked me at the time was when I was in America – a student rabbi called Nathan asked if I was upset that Britain didn’t have the death penalty. It made me realise how much rage was inside me because I knew the answer at the time was yes. The instinctive reaction to the death of loved ones by most people is vengeance. Proverbs 11 doesn’t tell us that there should be shouts of joy when the wicked die, just that there are – this is the normal state of affairs. So the people who gathered in crowds in the US this week to cheer the death of bin Laden were just doing what came naturally. They were expressing an aspect of grief that is real. But just because that’s what’s natural doesn’t mean that’s what we should be doing, hence the need for the Proverbs 24

 text. We hold these together by understanding that they’re talking about the same situation and comparing the normative and the ideal response.

In terms of our Talmudic texts, I always hesitate when we try to know the mind of God. Is God a God of mercy or of vengeance? The question is relevant since we are asked to walk in God’s ways (Deut. 10:12) – if God is merciful, so too should we be merciful, but if God is vengeful, so too should we be vengeful. Bringing our Proverbs texts in here is helpful for me – we can incite God’s name in vengeance if we wish since God also exacts vengeance but I believe that ultimately God wants us to be merciful and to not celebrate the death of the wicked. So I won’t condemn the cheering because I understand it as an expression of pain. I would hope that people might eventually move beyond it, so that they can see that even murderers are people too - twisted hateful people - but people nonetheless. They may not deserve our sympathy in the slightest because we also learn that whoever destroys a life is as though they have destroyed the entire world (Talmud: Sanhedrin 37a) but every person, even a murderer, is part of God’s creation. Ultimately, when such a person dies, how we respond says much about ourselves, whether we are in pain and, if so, how we express that pain.  

At the end of the day, I would have liked to have seen bin Laden stand trial, to have had his ideology publicly torn apart, to have had his hatred exposed. I would have liked to have seen a man who elavated himself to the point where he ordered the deaths of others, even those who served him, humbled in the dock and shown to have been just a twisted soul, although I appreciate the tremendous risk that would have involved. I would have liked the world to have really seen how a normal young boy became a mass murderer and would have liked the world to have really understood the consequences of that for all of us. Is the world a better place without him? Probably. Is that reason to celebrate? No, but I understand and feel sorry for those for whom that is the instinctual reaction.

Just in case we forget that he was once like all of us before turning to evil.


  1. I've just found this link which I thought is also interesting, particularly considering the comment I make in the final paragraph above:


  2. I agree. The arguments in favour of his execution have in the main been from pragmatism as to the likely consequences of his capture, and the simple justification of killing a declared military enemy. No doubt these have considerable force. But notwithstanding such difficulties, it does seem that an opportunity has been lost for the world to have witnessed, in the clear light of day, the fundamental differences between the unilateral ruthlessness of this radical opponent of the West, and the inclusive and moderating principles of Western justice.

  3. I enjoyed your post and listed the link on my own blog at http://midlifebatmitzvah.wordpress.com/2011/05/08/bin-laden-and-eichmann/. One parallel that crossed my mind was with the trial of Adolf Eichmann 50 years ago -- that sent a powerful message to the world that justice and law exist, that evil will be punished, and that our goal should be justice rather than tribal revenge.

  4. I was and remain very disturbed by the killing of Bin Laden. No one and no country has the right moral or otherwise to become judge jury and executioner. Every individual on the planet should have a right to a fair trial, regardless of what they have been accused of. Killing someone who is unarmed, other than in a legal execution following a trial, is murder. So Bin Laden may have been an evil man possibly responsible for many killings but we have now lost the chance to see him exposed for what he was. However of course by taking this action the US govt has denied us the chance to see what formed this man, how he was trained and schooled in terroist activites (possibly by the US itself). I can not rejoice at this death, as i can not rejoice at any death. The death of an enemy is a hollow victory

  5. Not to mention the fact that his son was also killed and his wife shot. The entire thing went down as a pre-meditated murder in itself. To make matters worse, it was an invasion force being sent onto another countries sovereign soil to hunt down another human being. Sometimes it also helps to imagine if the shoe was on our feet, how would we feel if a group of people were sent into our respective countries to shoot to kill some residents for retribution. Naturally, I think we'd be upset.

    I think we also have to remember, that as much as the Torah commands us to do much, the one thing that never gets shirked is a system of justice. One which Eichmann had the opportunity to use and bin Laden didn't. You could in fact be theoretically happy at the slaying of innocent people, they weren't tried, no evidence was brought forward and no defence lawyers were heard in front of a judge.

  6. I am sure that a very high percentage of the democratic world's (whaever that phrase means) population was relieved that one of the major architects of terrorism had been eliminated; but the method of despatch may leave some with uncertainty about how to morally square the shooting of an unarmed man with judicial execution. Clearly to have taken Bin Laden alive would have presented the Americans with the uncomfortable prospect of a high-profile trial with a predictable outcome, namely capital punishment, and the elevation of bin Laden as victim, "saint" and focus for multitudinous fanatical groups around the globe. If there is a Jewish view on the treatment of a mass murderer, and I have doubts whether one can meaningfully speak about a coherent ethic on this point, it is centred on the belief in due legal process. There has to be the opportunity for the accused to argue his case even when the evidence is overwhelmingly damning, as was the case in the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Such trials should be conducted by an international court to counter the charge of national bias. One discomforting feature of reading about mass murderers is the fact they were once children. Photographs of bin Laden, Hitler and Stalin, to mention but three notorious characters from recent history give little suggestion of what they would become. I ponder what experiences, influences, personality defects created such people. Where they born inherently evil or where they a product of disturbed societies?