As many will know I spent the night of 9/11 2001 at Ground Zero working with the emergency services, inhaling the dust, smelling the scent of hell.
As the news came through of the assassination of Osama Bin Laden this week my memories filled up, again, with the horror of that dark time when it felt as if the world was coming to an end. I remember seeing Rudy Giuliani, then mayor of New York, striding through the ash on that night. Some ten years later his comments on the assassination matched my own - ‘I feel satisfaction and some emotional relief but I don’t feel great elation. I watch a lot of the celebrating and it makes me feel a little strange, I don’t know,’ said Giuliani, clearly stuttering with the same sense of awkwardness I feel, ‘'Nothing erases the loss of all those lives. I feel satisfaction … but I don’t feel like celebrating.’
Much of the Jewish blogosphere, writing in the aftermath of the assassination, has focussed on a well known Midrash regarding the Song of the Sea. The Children of Israel make it across the dry land and then the waves come down on the Egyptians, ‘horse and rider swept into the sea.’ The Israelites sing a triumphalist ballad, the Angels wish to join in and God interrupts the angelic chorus with the retort, ‘The work of My hands is drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?’ (Sanhedrin 39b). We don’t rejoice in the death of doers of evil for even they, yes even him, are created in the image of God.
Another text, on my mind, is Midrash Tehilim (118). Here we read a tale of Bruriah, wife of the Talmudic sage Rebbi Meir, criticising her husband for praying for the death of a wicked neighbour. Using good Rabbinic exegesis Bruriah proves that while we can, and must, pray for the elimination of ACTS of evil we should never pray for the elimination of DOERS of evil. While acting to eliminate acts may, in the most extreme of circumstances, justify the elimination of a doer, it is vital we understand the implications of focussing on acts and not perpetrators.
By focussing on acts we have the possibility of changing cultures and breaking cycles of violence. By focussing on perpetrators we risk creating idols and heroes binding us ever more tightly into precisely the same cycles of revenge and violence we desperately wish to break.
These are dark and murky waters, I shed no tear for Osama, but I offer no triumphalist cheer either.