Hands of a guy on laptop keyboard

Around bin Ladin’s death

Published on 14 May 2011
Updated on 05 April 2024

verba sunt plurima multa in
disputando habentia vanitatem


The demise of Osama bin Laden has triggered a lahar of commentary. I discern three strands.

The first is voyeuristic: just as in a football game one no longer is content with the game itself, one wants instant analysis, replay of every detail and some more. Such details are then immediately recycled for political posturing or partisan advantage.

The second is consequential: what will happen as a result? Everything can be imagined: subtle and subtler rounds of possible or collateral connections can be conjured, opposing views abjured. Choose a country or a group, or even a person, today or say five years from now,
and start prophesizing. If small causes can have big effects, anything is possible or plausible. If 10’000 experts vaticinate, a few are bound to be right, by the law of numbers. On such chance events reputations are made.

It has been pointed out that before the US started bombing Cambodia, Pol Pot’s group counted no more than 5,000 members. In the wake of the political disruption following the incursions they seized power. Could anyone have confidently predicted the ensuing auto-genocide? Can we place the onus on Kissinger and Nixon?

The third strand is legal: Was the killing consistent with international law? I expect the first legal analyses to hit the scholarly journals in time for their next issue. Meanwhile legal experts have reflected on line, so Prof. Jeremy WALDRON of CUNY and Oxford in a
blog entry of the LRB. Articulate comments have been posted. https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2011/05/07/jeremy-waldron/targeted-killing/.

To a blacksmith everything looks like a nail – and the noise of legal hammers on the issue is a far cry from HÄNDEL’s Harmonious Blacksmith. It reminds me of the alleged dispute among medieval theologians as to the number of angels thatcould dance on a pin. The opinions varied from infinite, to zero, but also one.

My instinctive reaction is one of distaste. The judgmental needle hovers somewhere between “pointless” and “disgusting”. Pointless it certainly is – like white breakers on a stormy sea most daily commentaries dissolve into the next foaming surge. In fact all of this noise, including the search for the “just moral stance”, seems a distraction to me. As zen Buddhism teaches, it is an illusion to imagine that we can free ourselves of illusions.

Distraction from what? The term disgust may point to something. William Ian MILLER reminds us that “to feel disgust is human and humanizing”[1]. The search for facts and “justice” is distracting because it is dehumanizing. It creates distance from the deed, and thereby dissipates responsibility into analytical dissection or vengeaful satisfaction. Circumstances are heaped so as to hide the core reality. Once more a man has been killed. Taking responsibility is the moral stance to hold, not finding justification for the specific act.

In a world of diversity of individuals, conditions, and groups the task ahead is to forge a compromise that makes living next to each other possible for all. Every time a man has been killed – this is evidence that we have failed. We must find new ways. This is what taking responsibility is about.

[1] William Ian MILLER (1997): The anatomy of disgust. Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass.;
p. 11.

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