I found out that Osama bin Laden was dead while I was in the Toronto airport. The news was so new that it hadn’t even made it to the New York Times. I read about it in the Globe and Mail instead, while eating a grilled cheese sandwich in a Molson’s pub. And watched reports about it on TV after TV throughout the terminal. Except the reports weren’t really about bin Laden’s death, they were about the reaction to it. Which was pretty much joy all around. And which the TV people up there in Canada seemed to find quite appropriate.
And which I found a little shocking. Because one of the many things drilled into me as a kid was that you don’t take joy in the deaths of your enemies. This is one of the central lessons of the Passover seder, as we dip our fingers in the Passover wine and sprinkle the drops onto our Passover plates, one for each plague, in mourning for the ancient Egyptians who suffered and died while trying to enslave, capture and/or kill us. In the Talmud, God specifically tells the angels to stop rejoicing as the waters of the Red Sea close over the Pharoah’s army: “The works of my hands are drowning, and you are celebrating?”
God isn’t having some kind of sloppy kumbaya moment here. God isn’t saying that people who do bad things should be left alone to do more bad things. After all, the God who tells the angels to stop rejoicing at the deaths of the Pharoah’s soldiers is precisely the God who is killing them. But he takes no pleasure in it. They are not demons, they are human beings, God’s creation as much as Moses is.
On the other hand, Osama bin Laden demonized people, lots of them: Americans, Jews, Europeans, Israelis, non-Wahhabi non-Salafist Muslims, the Saudi government … He demonized a lot of people, and he took pleasure in their deaths.
Which side are you on?
Because the thing about demonizing people is that it doesn’t just stop with folks who do really bad things. We even manage to demonize people who merely annoy us. Like the woman I saw in an airport a few years ago yelling at another woman for talking too loudly on her cellphone, but if woman No. 1 had been paying attention, she’d have realized that someone in woman No. 2’s family was in some kind of serious trouble, so while woman No. 1 was busy demonizing woman No. 2, everyone else was demonizing woman No. 1 for her lack of compassion: What kind of person would do a thing like that!
And everyone (except the women on the phone) felt so much better. Because it feels so good to demonize. It’s a lot easier to kill/maim/yell at/steal from/dismiss/lie to/ignore … someone we’ve demonized than someone we recognize as fully human.
But we are all fully human. From Pol Pot to Mother Teresa, we are all fully and completely human. The Talmudic authors knew this. So should we.