A victory of good over evil

The gloating at some of the celebrations of Osama bin Laden's death seemed improper, suggesting an unfavorable aspect of American youth culture.

woman celebrates in front of white house_311 reuters (photo credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
woman celebrates in front of white house_311 reuters
(photo credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
The outpouring of joy at the elimination of one of the deadliest terrorist masterminds was spontaneous and often rowdy, strongly resembling the sort of triumphant shouting that accompanies sports events. In fact, Slate’s Brian Palmer actually traced the origins of the ubiquitous chanting of “U-S-A!” back to America’s 1975 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics swimming championships, before the US lost to Canada, and to the 1976 Olympic ice hockey event, after the Americans defeated the Finnish team.
Those responsible for the most boisterous behavior appeared to be young. In Washington, DC, troupes of college students from nearby American University, George Washington University, George Mason and other schools ran, or skated, or literally skipped toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to celebrate. A similar scene was repeated in New York City’s Times Square, where a predominantly young crowd, many of whom must have been little children on September 11, 2001, sang ecstatically to tunes including Bruce Springsteen’s (anti-war) “Born in the USA” and Miley Cyrus’s (vacuous) “Party in the USA,” and waved the American flag.
Osama bin Laden’s demise is, undoubtedly, an important achievement for the US and its partners in the struggle against terrorism – the successful culmination of a nearly decade-long chase, and a reconfirmation of American power in a country that has suffered several recent military and economic blows to its self-confidence. That bin Laden’s death was brought about by US Navy SEALs – and the chance that recognition of this was the evil man’s last thought – might bring some small consolation to Americans who lost relatives and loved ones to his terrorism, in action in the ongoing ground offensive in Afghanistan, or in Pakistan, where he was finally located.
Bin Laden’s pseudo-spiritual countenance was also a rallying symbol for hordes of Islamist reactionaries. His death may not hugely impact his terror network, but it will harm his supporters’ morale. At the very least, we may not have to put up with a smirking video when the 10th anniversary of his most notorious atrocity comes around later this year.
Still, the gloating at some of the celebrations seemed, somehow, improper, suggesting an unfavorable aspect of American youth culture. Tellingly, Donald Fitzgibbon of Knoxville, Tennessee, whose son Pvt. Patrick Fitzgibbon, 19, was killed when he stepped on a buried land mine in southern Afghanistan, rejected the idea of rejoicing in bin Laden’s death. To do so, he told The New York Times, “makes me no better than him.”
Judaism warns against gloating. Proverbs (24:17) states, “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice, and when he stumbles let not your heart be glad.” According to the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b and Megillah 10b), angels were rebuked by God for attempting to sing during the splitting of the Red Sea: “My creatures [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea and you are singing a song?”
Numerous rabbis – including Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Aruch, and Israel Meir Kagen, author of the Mishnah Brurah – have argued that for the same reason an abbreviated form of the “Hallel” prayer is recited during all but the first day of Pessah. At the same time, Judaism does not rule out altogether the celebration of the death of evil people. Preventing us from giving expression to our emotions of relief and joy at the removal of evil from the world and the triumph of good might muddle our moral sensibilities. After all, an abbreviated prayer of praise is, nevertheless, recited during all of Pessah.
Rabbi Kalman Kalonymus Shapira, the Admor of Piaseczno, murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust, famously argued in favor of rejoicing at the downfall of evil. Shapira, who supported the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, noted that God’s rebuke was directed specifically at the angels, not at Moses, Miriam and the rest of the Jews who sang, danced and drummed after the drowning of the would-be genocide-committing Egyptians.
“Was an angel ever hit?” admonished Shapira in Holy Fire (Aish Kodesh), a book written in the Warsaw Ghetto. “Was an angel ever murdered? Was an angel ever humiliated? We were!” Therefore, he concludes, it is only human to be thankful when evil is eradicated.
Nevertheless, the very fact that Judaism questions unbridled jubilation at the demise of our enemies helps ensure that the focus of our joy is less about triumphalism and self-satisfaction – of the kind articulated for a victorious sports team – and more about the victory of good over evil. Otherwise, we risk losing our moral bearings and becoming, to paraphrase the bereaved father of Pvt. Patrick, “no better than them.”