I am very happy that Usama bin Ladin is dead. It tickled me the same way it tickled me when I heard they found Saddam Hussein hiding in a hole. It has the same emotional resonance that one feels at the end of the odd movie, Inglorious Basterds, when Hitler is pumped full of lead and the movie theater blows up with all those Nazis.
Usama bin Ladin was born four days before I was. A few million human beings were born on that day in 1957. But only one of them turned into the mass murdering mastermind of 9/11. Likewise, when he was finally brought to justice in the early hours of May 2, 2011 he joined several million other people who also died that day.
Birth, life and death are common to human beings everywhere. What we do with the brief moment of existence we have been granted is ours alone to decide. There are those who believe that being born into a life of poverty and want dooms a human being to a lifetime of misery. Or it will cause them to chafe under the unjustness of their situation and force them into a life of criminal behavior. It is, however, an illusion to believe that economics or our circumstances are the sole determining factors in how we turn out in life. Poverty and suffering are not the causes of the extremism that inflames the world in which Bin Ladin grew up.
After all, Bin Ladin did not arise from poverty or misery. Bin Ladin was born into a life of privilege—of incredible wealth. He was able to go to the best schools, to travel the world, to receive every good thing that a life could offer. When his father was tragically killed in an auto accident, he inherited a fortune estimated at 300 million dollars.
Bin Ladin’s trip to the dark side of extremism was made by him freely, the consequence of what he came to believe about God and religion. His motivation, and the motivation of those who joined him, had nothing to do with economics or politics. The nineteen men who flew aircraft into buildings on September 11, 2001 were also affluent, privileged, and well-educated.
They and their master Bin Ladin were not acting out of economic or social injustice; they had, instead, developed twisted religious beliefs. They believed with certainty that they were right and all those who disagreed were not just wrong, but evil and needed to be destroyed.
But we can’t blame Islam. Most Moslems who were raised with the same basic religious beliefs as Bin Ladin never became terrorists. Religion alone is not to blame, either.
Religious beliefs led Mother Theresa to spend her life helping the disadvantaged in India. Religious beliefs lead Christians suffering persecution to continue clinging to their faith, to go to church each week knowing that they might be arrested or killed. It is not wealth and privilege or deprivation and suffering that bring ordinary people around the world to church or synagogue or mosque, who feed the poor, who teach their children, who live quiet lives with friends and family. Likewise, it is not wealth or deprivation or religion that creates men like Bin Ladin—or those like Fred Phelps who march around waving signs of condemnation at the funerals of soldiers.
What led Usama bin Ladin to become the worst terrorist in history? We all have troubles and tribulations. Many people have bad childhoods. Many people are poor, some people are rich. But only Hitler grew up to become Hitler and only Usama grew up to be Usama. It is an interesting psychological and historical question to ponder, of academic interest, to think about how an evil person comes to be. I enjoyed Ron Rosenbaum’s book, Explaining Hitler, where he examined the views of multiple historians who attempted to come to grips with how Hitler became the man he did. Its cover is a photograph of Hitler as an infant, and the question throughout is “what made that baby become a monster?”
In the end, Ron Rosenbaum had no answer to the question. He concluded that the question is unanswerable. Likewise, we’ll never know for sure how Usama turned into the monster he became, unlike his brothers and sisters, unlike all the other people of Saudi Arabia who lead normal lives.
The Prophet Ezekiel reported that God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked. Jesus told his followers to pray for those who persecuted them and to always return good for evil. For the fictional Klingons, “revenge is a dish best served cold,” but for Christians, we’re told vengeance belongs only to God.
Nevertheless, the Proverbs express both God’s command “do not rejoice when your enemy stumbles” together with the thought that “the people rejoice when the wicked are destroyed.” And certainly it is human nature to become giddy over the end of tyrants. No one sheds a tear when a gangster meets justice, when the dictator falls, or when a terrorist is transformed into fish food.
God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but God also sees to it that they do on occasion die. Justice—and vengeance—is sometimes served, cold as ice. And for that we give thanks.