Monday, May 2, 2011

A brief philosophical reflection on the death of Bin Laden

Many people around the country and around the world, unsurprisingly, are rejoicing that the mastermind behind the attacks of 9/11 has been killed. The news of Bin Laden's death certainly has aroused within our memories that stark day nearly ten years ago when so many witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers and the permanent mark it left on too many families. In our desire for justice, President Obama's late-hour news conference inevitably caused many to run into the streets in joy and celebration.

I join with quite a number of people, however, who are unable to find it in themselves to celebrate. The Vatican summarizes it best when Fr. Lombardi, the Vatican's spokesman, stated earlier today:
In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.
Personally, I find myself thinking about the tragic nature of Bin Laden's life. What would ever cause a human being to think up something like 9/11 and rejoice in the death of countless lives?

Curiously, I find myself reflecting on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas during this time, whose philosophy has heavily influenced Catholic thought to this day. Aquinas in many ways can be characterized as being a pure optimist when it comes to the human person. He believed that it is impossible for a human being ever to will evil, and certainly someone today might use the example of Bin Laden to refute him on this point. Yet, I find myself in agreement with Aquinas--perhaps because I would like to be overly optimistic about the human condition. Human beings cannot help but act towards what we understand to be the good, and it is through the errors of our judgment that we get into a lot of trouble. Yet, our erroneous thinking does not negate our human impulse towards the good. In response, Aquinas would argue that Bin Laden never willed what he understood to be evil. He arguably understood the attacks of 9/11 and all the other terrorist acts he committed to be an absolute good in itself.

This is the point of tragedy for Bin Laden. That any human being could understand the death of thousands to be a good is beyond me. Yet, I am sure there are a lot more people like Bin Laden out there whose thinking is shaped by injustice, greed, and desperation. Somehow, Bin Laden's thought was tragically shaped into the mind of a killer, which is not the natural state of a human being.

Our essential task is to bring healing and reconciliation to the world. We have to be able to transform hearts and minds so that no human being ever thinks that the death of innocent life is a good. We have to be able to build and nurture environments where love and charity are at the center of all human action. This is why the education of youth is so important, since when improper thinking takes root, it is almost impossible to uproot as one becomes older. Striving for justice, then, cannot simply be reactive. It must also be necessarily preventative. Ideally, it can also be restorative--that justice restores us to become the sort of human beings we were meant to be.

May Bin Laden's death, then, be an event that spurs us into greater love and service. May his death lead us into the greater task of working for peace and justice. For Christ teaches: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (Matthew 5:9)

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