Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Time to Heal, A Time to Mourn ... Even if Not the Death of an Enemy

A Time to Heal, A Time to Mourn… Even If Not the Death of an Enemy

My 17 year old daughter came bounding downstairs at about 10:45 PM, which was the first hint that anything was out of the ordinary. “Why aren’t you watching the news? Something big is going on…” Even she did not know exactly what yet, even though her cyber-world (I thought she was sleeping!) was already abuzz….

She grabbed the clicker, and flipped to Fox News – not for political reasons, but because it was the one station showing news at that hour in the regular listings. I chuckled to myself in amazement later when I remembered this moment – that with all she has lived through in her own life, with the political awareness about news media that she gained during the last presidential campaign, it STILL didn’t dawn on her that if whatever was going on really was that big that EVERYONE would have gone to news reports, and she did not need to turn to Fox (and did they REALLY misspeak at one point and refer to the death of OBAMA!?). But also, that NEITHER of us, at that critical moment, instinctively turned to the internet, or even CNN! Broadcast network news was the choice…

Within a minute, we heard the words that neither of us could have imagined. “Osama is dead.” Very few words passed between us, as we both struggled to process what we were seeing and hearing, awaiting the official word from the President. We remarked at the irony of the raid coming on the anniversary of the “Mission Accomplished” speech 8 years ago. We wondered how this would affect the troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and their mission. And before I get into the deeper issues, let me say this up front – major kudos to those who planned and implemented this raid so successfully. It is nice to be able to be as proud of a well-done American military action as I have many times been of their Israeli counterparts! And by extension, let this serve as a reminder for us to thank ALL those who serve to protect us!

I could be wrong, but I believe she was struggling as I was, looking for the proper emotion in that moment. Clearly, this will be one of those touchstone moments that she already has too many of in her life – 9/11, the snipers shooting Iran Brown in front of Tasker MS in Bowie in 2002, Obama’s election and inauguration, and now this. It will, no doubt, be seen as significant, even if history comes to recognize how little real impact it may have as we move forward. Symbolic value is important, and valuable at a moment like this in our nation’s history. The closure bin Laden’s death represents for many is a large part of their, and our national, healing. However, it was necessary for a REAL life to be taken by force in order for this sense of pride to be brought to the surface.

Clearly, it was correct to be happy and proud. After all, our country’s foreign policy for nearly the last decade has been predicated on finding and removing this man from influence, as we have been told that he was responsible for planning and ordering the events of 9/11/01, and the deaths of some 3000 innocent Americans.

In the 10 years since, hundreds of thousands of American’s lives have been directly impacted, as they, or their friends and family, have been sent overseas to participate in the search, and the corollary military activities connected to it. Many have died, more have been injured. Families have been separated, lives have been changed by the experience. This mission, and its success – especially with no apparent collateral damage to our own operatives or innocent bystanders -- were the ultimate vindication of their sacrifices and efforts.

And yet, there was no obvious way to express that pride, that relief that the long-awaited outcome had been achieved. And there was a tinge of pride in my own heart when I thought I recognized Emily’s struggle as well. After all, how do we rejoice at a death, even of one as despised as bin Laden? (Sadly, I was only partly accurate in judging WHY she struggled to find the right emotion, but if anything, hearing her share her own reasons only STRENGTHENED my own difficulty!)

Don’t misunderstand me. I am as proud for my country as anyone who spontaneously chanted “USA” during the critical moments of a baseball game last night, as the news spread like wildfire through the stands, passed from one smartphone to another (another sign of just how much our world has changed, foundationally!), shared by fans who otherwise had spent the entire game not talking to each other; as instinctively as glad as anyone who joined the flash mobs outside the White House and at Ground Zero (and apparently, on college campuses across the country) in the middle of the night -- that bin Laden will no longer be able to influence others to hate Americans for being Americans.
However, I hope I am not the only Jew who remembers Palestinians cheering the SCUD missiles as they flew towards Israel, or American who watched as Arabs in many countries cheered as the Twin Towers burned and collapsed. We bristled at their callous disregard for human life when the celebration was at our expense. How we can we ignore the truth that there is some similar element that, if not intended by our celebrations, certainly will be perceived by our enemies in our joy.

One of my colleagues (who I like too much as a person to identify by name here) has posted about our celebration of Chanukkah, “We have an entire holiday celebrating the destruction of the Greeks - it's called Hannukah! We may not celebrate our enemy's death, but we sure celebrate the end of their life! I am joyous about OBL's end of terror as I was about Arafat's, Hussein's, Pol Pot, etc.”

Those of you who know me well know that I disagree completely with his reading of Chanukkah’s message, and even with his assertion that it is about the “destruction” of the (Syrian-) Greeks. I DO, however, accept and agree his last statement – I am just not sure how he gets there from what comes before it. And, in the process, he shows what can happen when we fail to learn the lessons of our tradition…

Maybe it is the close calendric proximity to our annual Passover seders that made my mind jump so quickly to THAT festival instead, but the death of an enemy, even one so despised and seemingly deserving as bin Laden, is STILL the death of a human being. And THAT is made clear at the seder! We spill 10 drops of wine, more than symbolically, in the midst of that annual participatory drama, to remind ourselves that the death, even the suffering, of others MUST limit our own rejoicing, EVEN AT ACHIEVING FREEDOM from the oppressor!

As my friend Stephen Brickman reminded his many friends on Facebook at the height of the celebrating (and took a huge amount of heat for doing so!), our Jewish tradition tells a remarkable story about the celebration at our Redemption at the Sea. The men began to sing and dance a song of praise to God for their deliverance – we sing it still today as part of our liturgy as “Mi Khamokhah.” The Biblical text, usually silent on the behavior and words that came from the women, here tells us that even the women, following the lead of Moses’ sister, Miriam, sang and danced and played instruments in praise and joy as well.

Seeing this, the Rabbinic midrash picks up the story, God’s ministering angels began to sing and dance as well. God immediately chastised them, reminding them of two critical truths. First, that the angels were not, themselves, saved at the Sea like the people were, so that their own lack of personal investment did not justify their singing and dancing in joy. Even more so as, second, because of their position and detachment, the angels should have realized that the deaths of the Egyptians which were necessary to achieve this result SHOULD have prevented them from rejoicing.

The moral of this story is clear – those who have been delivered, whether from slavery or danger, DO have the right to celebrate their own personal salvation. However, even those closest to them – removed either by physical or temporal proximity – are expected to maintain perspective and respect the loss of life involved.

It was my colleague and friend, Rabbi Peter Rigler, who pulled and posted the quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that came even closer to what I was feeling…

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

As I read those words that I had learned before, I began to pull into focus the several items that were bothering me. None of which, by the way, was that bin Laden is dead, although, perhaps, it should have been.

I understand that we, as Americans, are better off for having killed him than we would have been if we had captured him alive, as we did with Saddam Hussein. The questions of where and how to bring bin Laden to trial, where to keep him incarcerated for his safety and that of innocent others, the likelihood that someone would eventually be motivated to try to either kill him themselves or rescue him need neither be asked nor answered this way.

However, there are a couple of issues that MUST be answered before I, and other good people, can be completely comfortable with what has happened. First and foremost, the same level of professionalism and commitment to task that was shown in killing bin Laden yesterday needs to continue to be shown by ALL those on the front line – including TSA and Homeland Security -- as we brace for the inevitable backlash. And that includes all of us as Americans. “See something, say something” must become more than a cute catch phrase, but rather, a natural response. If we believe what we have been told for several years, that al-Qaeda today is far more diversified and decentralized, then even bin Laden’s death does NOT put them out of business. However, it COULD easily set in motion plans that have been long-practiced for what to do in response to his death….

Second, we need to hear, in clear and unambiguous terms, why it was necessary to issue a kill order that was carried out within the borders of a foreign sovereign nation. We need to hear that it was carried out with the full knowledge, if not cooperation, of the host nation. Otherwise, we need to hear conclusively why gaining their involvement and support would have endangered our mission. And, while we are at it, when the dust settles, we probably need to re-evaluate our relationship with the host government, given where and at what level of luxury it turns out bin Laden was living this whole time, as we searched the rugged hill country for him. It now seems highly unlikely that his whereabouts were totally unknown to our alleged allies….

Third, in order to maintain good will with the Islamic world, which is already predisposed to lean away from America, and to avoid widespread conspiracist speculation about wagging the dog, we need to be provided with incontrovertible proof that the person we killed really was Osama bin Laden, and that Osama bin Laden really is dead. Here, especially, the kill order works against us, as it denies us the undeniable proof of watching his “perp walk” into custody.

Again, I understand why we felt it necessary and valuable to immediately bury bin Laden at sea. By doing so, we avoid the potential nightmare of an organized raid succeeding at capturing his body, and by dumping him at sea, we remove the potential of any land area becoming a shrine to his martyrdom (assuming that there will be no tangible remnant left at the site of his compound, and that it will be turned over to others to rebuild and repopulate). How ironic that the comparison here is to the death and burial of our own Moses!

And I appreciate our government’s claims that the sea burial was done according to Islamic law and sensibilities. However, like a sea burial within Judaism, such an action is NOT the norm, and leaves our government and military open to complaints that we failed to respect sensibilities, even as it seems clear that we DID try to act with respect in death to one who showed none to us in life.

It also raises the possibility of increased questioning of whether the body that was weighted down in a shroud and “eased into the sea,” was, in fact, that of bin Laden. And lest this sound like I am endorsing the conspiracy theorists of both extremes, with whom I rarely seek or find common ground or comfort, let me point out that the voices I am hearing raising these concerns already are NOT extreme voices. They are well respected mainstream voices.

But worst of all, I have an abiding concern that no one can now address because bin Laden is dead. Even greater than the REAL source of Emily’s discomfort – which she claimed is a cynicism as to whether his death will actually change anything (I AM so proud!).

Because she followed that answer with a resounding “He needs to be dead.” And in that sentiment, expressed equally unequivocally by so many in these first 24 hours, lies my worst fears. It is an embrace of the Wild West mentality that was at the heart of the “Bush Doctrine” that guided the search for bin Laden. We were told in the first hours of the “War on Terror” that bin Laden was wanted, in the words of the cliché, “dead or alive.”

Rather than following the teachings of Judaism and of Dr. King, we have played into emotion and pandered to our least common denominator reactions, lowering ourselves to the level of those who would attack us, rather than maintaining the high ground and behaving in a way which would make western democracy something to be respected and copied, rather than targeted.

Rather than trusting the court of law, we sent out a posse to enforce the verdict of the court of public opinion. We have been told from the beginning that Osama bin Laden, as the leader of al-Qaeda, was responsible for the events of 9/11 and many other atrocities. However, HOW DO WE KNOW that this is an accurate claim? After all, at the risk of stooping to what some might claim is a cheap shot, those making the claim of bin Laden’s culpability are the same folks who wanted the world to believe that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq!

And now, a kill order, successfully carried out, and a burial at sea of the body, have removed ALL chances of any normative investigation of the man or his actions. While I will NOT go so far as some of my colleagues have, and completely ignore what has happened since 1993 (the first attempt at taking down the Twin Towers), or bin Laden's public posturings of hate directed at America and the West that are a total abomination of the Islamic tradition he purported to respect and follow, by including his name in our prayers for the dead this week, I am, nevertheless, deeply concerned that our own response -- in our public behaviors AND our government's official responses and actions -- needs to be EXACTLY right. And so far, it has not been. This is NOT America’s finest hour, and I do not need Dr. King or the sacred texts of my tradition to know that, and to know it clearly enough to be willing to stand up and say it loudly and clearly even while the visceral celebrations are still dying down.

Therefore, we NEED our government, now that bin Laden IS dead, to publicly present the FULL case that they would have presented in a court of law to gain a conviction of bin Laden for crimes against our country and against humanity. NOTHING LESS will stand a chance of succeeding in winning the battle in the court of public opinion, which is the only possible venue remaining in which this case can be made.

In saying it, I do NOT disrespect the military folks who did their job and did it well. I do NOT belittle the sense of closure that bin Laden’s death (I pray) brings to every survivor of a victim of 9/11, every family member who lost a soldier in the War on Terror or who is nursing one back to health, and to our country as a whole. Those are two categories of my fellow Americans who continue to be in my prayers every day.

In saying it, I refuse to take sides in the inevitable battle over political legacy as to just whose victory this is. Because the truth is that this victory is NOT George Bush’s. NEITHER is it Barack Obama’s. The truth is, that we do not even know yet just how significant a victory this will turn out to be in reality, or even if it will be! But whatever victory it is needs to be a victory for the IDEALS that America was built on, the VALUES that make us strong, or else it is no victory. It needs to be a victory for America and ALL Americans!

And I say it to question where we, as a country, lost our moral compass. Where we went off the tracks and became no better than those who would attack us. I say it as the inheritor of the generation of protestors in the 60s who spoke out to criticize our government as a statement of our respect and love for what our nation and our government are suppose to represent and believe, with the hope of getting us back ON track! I say it as a proud, but troubled American, who believes “My country, even WHEN it is wrong!” rather than “My country – right or wrong!”

Of course, I recognize that simply by saying it, I can fully expect to draw the wrath of those whose chauvinism and jingoism has replaced their moral compass, those whose myopia and ego have lessened us in the eyes of the rest of the world as a country, a world power, and a force for good and justice, and, in the process, severely weakened us in reality; those who think character attacks and yelling can drown out reasoned and principled argument and debate.

And that is a price that I am more than willing to pay, in part because if I am not willing to do so, then no one else should or will be either. Because, in this case, the Bush Doctrine’s Wild West mentality is correct – if I am not part of the solution, then I am part of the problem.

And while only time will allow me to know for sure just how big a moment Sunday night really was, I know with an absolute certainty that as Yom HaSho’ah – Holocaust Memorial Day – drew to a close at sunset, that I wanted, no – I NEEDED – to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem. Nothing else is good enough!

And I am incredibly relieved that as Tuesday morning has dawned, the tone is already changing. Jingoistic shouts of joy at the death of an enemy are being replaced, slowly but surely, by expressions of recognition of the complexities of the moment, and laments of just how much America and Americans HAVE been changed – and still are – by 9/11, as reflected in our public responses to bin Laden’s death

So celebrate a proud moment of closure and a “victory” for our country if it feels right. But remember what it took to achieve that victory, and look at that not only through our eyes, but through those of others. And move past the visceral reaction that blocks our ability to follow our true selves in our hearts and souls as quickly as possible. Then, when the celebrations die down, join with me in the REAL battle for America’s future – the internal one that only we can wage for our nation’s soul. The victims of 9/11 and their families deserve no less. The brave men and women of our armed forces and first responders and their families deserve no less. Our children and grandchildren deserve no less. WE deserve no less!