Dilemma: an al Qaeda quandary

Published 11:38am Friday, June 24, 2011

In mid 1970 a friend of mine was flying as a scout in Viet Nam.
His helicopter was shot down and both he and the pilot were killed. That was a sad day for many of us there in Quan Loi, near the Cambodia border. In combat situations, pain of this sort is often ventilated through a show of violence.
As a conscientious objector, I did not have that avenue available to me. I had no gun through which to empty a meaningless magazine at an imagined enemy. I was stuck with my pain.
A few days later, as I sat at a table in the unit’s mess hall, a buzz began circulating around the room. Soon enough the news reached me that one of our attack helicopters had located a sniper at the site of the downed chopper, and had eliminated him.
Men around me were excited and jubilant. I admit there was a sense of satisfaction in my friend being avenged, but at the same time I was struck by remorse that I was in the position of feeling satisfied at the death of another human being.
As I pondered the unsettling sense of competing feelings, a mighty roar went up all around me. Men rose to their feet, shouting and clapping their hands. The gunner who had made the kill had arrived and was greeted as a hero.
Again the feelings inside were pulling me in opposite directions. I stood with the rest, but couldn’t make myself cheer. I even felt guilty that maybe I was betraying my friend by not being more enthusiastic about this retribution – but it just wasn’t in me.
Over the years, that moment has lived on inside me. I let go of the guilt and accepted the reality of my mixed feelings long ago. There is nothing to be gained from wishing that I were other than who I really am; and who I am doesn’t rejoice in the taking of life.
That doesn’t mean that I believe that violence is never necessary – there are circumstances that require meeting force with force to preserve the perceived good. Nor does it mean I was not glad the sniper was eliminated as a potential threat. Still, that is no reason for me to celebrate when it happens.
On Monday morning (5-02-2011) I was getting dressed while the morning’s sports news droned in the background. I only half heard the announcer introduce an unusual occurrence at a baseball game in Philadelphia.
I turned to see what had happened and became aware of the death of Osama bin Laden. The crowd’s reaction in Philadelphia was to chant: U – S – A, over and over again.
Suddenly I was right back there in that mess hall in Quan Loi. The same opposing feelings coursed through me. I felt the same sense of amazement that crowds of people were cheering the death of a human being.
Yes, I knew even in the midst of this that the crimes of the man were so horrendous that he had earned his fate. And yes, I remembered that his influence at the very least had supported the events of 9/11 almost 10 years ago; perhaps he was even the “mastermind” behind the plot. Still, my spiritual groundwork demands that I not gloat at the death of another human being.
I have thought many times that in the view of radical Islam Americans are the terrorists, that western white people have once again invaded their countries, that Islamic values have been denounced and traditions violated, that some action had to be taken to stop western ways from destroying Arab culture.
However wrong we westerners think those beliefs to be, they are still the beliefs and values of many in the Arab world.
There is no real resolution to this dilemma. Life does not always present us with choices that are easily defined as to what is right and what is wrong. We don’t always get to take a stand and feel certain that we have made the best moral decision we could make given the situation.
Sometimes we can’t choose at all. That is the case for me in the instance of the death of Osama bin Laden. Part of me believes that justice has been served and I’m relieved that he is no longer a threat to others around the globe – especially Americans.
Another part is diminished by the glee celebrated by many at the loss of another human being, regardless of his values that are so anathema to what I, and most of the people who read these words today, hold dear.
In spite of the chasm dividing our opposing points of view we are still all in this thing together. This deed is now done. The conflict between east and west, however, is not over.
Chances are that al Qaeda remnants will play another round, and that will spawn yet another.
The world desperately needs a statesman who can help the sides find the commonality that exists and stop the seemingly endless need for revenge.
Until then, we will have to live with both the good (to some in the Arab world) and the bad that are represented by bin Laden’s life and death.

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