What sort of victory?

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By Marilyn McCord Adams

Almost at midnight, on the second Sunday of Easter, President Obama went on the air to announce: Osama Bin Laden is dead. In the wake of 9/11 then-President Bush vowed, “we’re gonna get him! It may not be today or tomorrow, but we’re gonna get him!” Thursday the wreath was laid at Ground Zero. Promise kept! Vow paid!

For years, intelligence agencies worked to track Bin Laden down. Like the Sanhedrin of Jesus’ day, Pakistani and Afghani governments seem to have played both sides against the middle, favoring now one, now the other, calculating what might secure their fragile holds on power. It took the identification of an insider to lead them to the likely place. For months, Navy Seals strategized the surgical strike that would take Bin Laden out by surprize, leaving no opportunity for counter-intrigue and minimizing “collateral damage.” In the event, Navy Seals demonstrated the skill and courage expected of them. Mission accomplished! Job well done!

Like 9/11 itself, “getting” Osama Bin Laden has high symbolic value. 9/11 did not just mean the death of 3,000+ individuals: finance professionals, the infra-structure–secretaries and couriers, janitors, coffee and sandwich vendors–that supported them, people rushing into another day’s work, eventually, police and fire-fighters and medics who came to the rescue and labored heroically to get some out. Two jet-liners crashing into the World Trade Center shattered America’s sense of invulnerability, our confidence that warfare is something that happens “over there.” The twin towers flaming, their haunting shells rising from the rubble broke through America’s collective psychological defenses with the bewildering news that some people hate us, that not everyone shares our confidence in capitalism, that the hearts of many do not warm to the slogan “Truth, Justice, and the American way.” 9/11 was an attack on our national integrity. Self-respecting parties must defend their honor. The Honor Code requires it. Al-Quaeda’s “low tech, high concept” blow put Osama Bin Laden “one up.” The Navy Seals’ surgical strike evens the score, sends the message: “Don’t think you can attack America like that and get away with it. There is enough to us, you can count on us to stand up for who we are and what we mean!”

President Obama was joined by legislators and journalists who said, “justice has been done,” “Bin Laden has been brought to justice.” Insofar as lex talionis is instinctive for humans, it is easy to understand what they mean. “A life for a life: take a life, and your life will be required of you.” True, Bin Laden master-minded a mass murder, and he had only one life to give. At the individual level, one eye for 3000 eyes doesn’t quite compute. But Bin Laden was the head of a global terrorist organization. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter.” We can hope that removing him will kill their organization, just as they meant 9/11 to be a critical blow to our American way of life.

Of course, Al-Qaeda knew that one terrorist attack wouldn’t be enough to destroy US presence in Arab countries. 9/11 was to be the Pearl-Harbor prelude to many others. Nor has the US made tracking down Bin Laden an exclusive focus. Even now, we have troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and drones fly over tribal lands in Pakistan. The 9/11 3000 have not been the only casualties in this culture war.

Many argue that our military actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan are also ways of bringing our enemies to justice. They explain that just war is a proportioned response of self-defense against an enemy initiative. Every day, our soldiers are fighting for justice, because the killings are a carefully calculated means to preserving our nation and what it stands for. Since Sunday, some have begun to raise the question whether our success in taking out Bin Laden doesn’t justify water-boarding and other severe interrogation techniques used on suspected Al-Quaeda collaborators. Others go further still to contend that these methods don’t count as torture because they are applied to get information that will save American lives.

Right or left, Democrat or Republican, commentators agree: killing Osama Bin Laden is a momentous victory. Certainly, it is an American victory. But it is not an Easter victory. Likewise, let’s not quibble about it now. By some criteria or other, our military engagement in Afghanistan may qualify as a just war. But it is not the Sermon-on-the-Mount righteousness that Jesus enjoins on citizens of the Reign of God.

What American response to 9/11 shows is what any student of history already knew: the USA is, like most other nations, willing to go to war to secure its existence and dominance. We love our way of life. We are right to think there is much in it that is worth preserving. We understandably treasure many and various of its high cultural achievements. I suspect that it is also true that human beings are politically challenged, not collectively competent enough to organize and secure a society against outside attacks without being willing to use force and violence to do it.

Nevertheless, war involves the killing and degrading of other human beings. It forsakes universal sympathy to act out the conviction that enemy lives are not as valuable as American lives. Severe interrogation methods aim to break down the personality, to shatter the integrity of the persons being questioned, to “persuade” them to betray deep loyalties by divulging privileged information. Nor are enemies the only ones put in harm’s way. We rear up our children in the knowledge and love of God, civilize them to the Golden Rule. But then we set some of them up for spiritual fragmentation by demanding that they become soldiers, people prepared to kill and degrade other human beings on our behalf “over there,” yet ready to re-enter polite society when they come home. The understood contract is “keep the horrors of war to yourselves, and we’ll give you a medal for your efforts.”

Killing or destroying the personal integrity of other human beings is bestial behavior. Society’s assignment to our soldiers does them spiritual violence. This means that much as we love our civilization and its achievements, it rests on a foundation of bestiality. Once again, I am not saying that America is worse than other nations. I am not claiming that turning the other cheek to Al-Quaeda would have been a more effective political strategy in the war on terror.

My point is that the willingness to kill and degrade other human beings violates our baptismal covenant. It breaks our promise to respect the dignity of every human being. Killing our enemies, breaking down their personalities, spiritually fragmenting our soldiers–none of these honors their human dignity as made in the image of God. Putting our soldiers in harm’s way violates the second great commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Killing our enemies and/or shattering their integrity flies in the face of Christ’s command to love our enemies. It follows that our individual and collective readiness to do these things when attacked is not an Easter-instinct, and that societies that rely on it are–whatever their other merits–still far from the Reign of God.

If my suspicions are correct–that humans are politically challenged, that we lack the competence to organize and secure societies without threatening force and violence–then God alone is able to organize a society that is not founded on bestiality. The reasons God can do this were made plain at Easter. God is Life, for all else the source of Life, able and willing to hold us in life come hell or high water. God is Love that will not let us go. God is resourceful to make a success of Divine projects, even though the powers of darkness do their worst. What it takes to make everybody utterly safe, to assure each and all that they are loved, what it takes to make force and violence, death and degradation obsolete, is nothing more nor less than Who and What God is.

No, killing Osama Bin Laden is not an Easter victory. It will not even “make the world safe for democracy.” That is why–on this Third Sunday of Easter as on every day–we still pray, “God in heaven, Your kingdom come!”

The Reverend Marilyn McCord Adams is Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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