Purgatory gained a new resident, and, at least for one year, the solemnity of Yom Hashoah (27 Nisan) was lightened, with the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed by an elite American Navy Seals team in a fortified compound in northeast Pakistan. The details of the raid are worthy of a Hollywood spectacle, and undoubtedly will be in due course, but it is time to celebrate the death of the mastermind of the worst atrocity perpetrated on American soil in history.
President Obama can rightly claim credit for this success that greatly weakens Al Qaeda’s capacity and influence. The fact that its founder and charismatic leader was killed by the “great Satan” demoralizes terrorists across the globe, removes a symbol of the “rise” of radical Islam, and likely reduces access to the bin Laden family fortune. Since the “fish stinks from the head,” chopping off the head from the snake of radical Islam is a grave setback that allows moderate Muslims, to the extent that they exist, to come forward and reclaim the legacy they assert is theirs. Certainly, there are al Qaeda cells across the world, and the Muslim Brotherhood is on the ascent in every Arab country with public unrest. Hamas quickly condemned the “assassination of the holy warrior,” something that itself should preclude any American acquiescence to the Fatah-Hamas rapprochement and is reminiscent of the celebrations that erupted in Gaza, Ramallah and elsewhere in the Arab world when the Arab terror attacks of September 11 took place.
Nevertheless, something was missing from the Obama announcement. It was not only the lack of graciousness to his predecessor. Typically, Obama asserted that he made the capture of bin Laden a priority immediately after he took office, implying… that Bush did not make that a priority? President Bush wrote in his memoirs that the failure to capture bin Laden was one of his “great regrets” as president, especially after pursuing him relentlessly for several years. A more gracious president would have acknowledged that this has been an American priority since 2001, and, to a great extent, even going back to the Clinton administration. Yet, the only reference to President Bush was to incorporate his statement after the Arab terror of September 11 and reiterate the cliché that America is not “at war with Islam.”
What was missing from Obama’s address (besides smoothness; he is a much better speaker with the dual teleprompter that enables him to move his head right and left than he is with the single screen monitor directly in front of him – one reason he consistently eschews the traditional Oval Office address) was joy. Simple joy, but even what President Bush’s critics would have termed “smug satisfaction” had this occurred under his watch. (I recall a great Bush line, in which he referenced the criticism of his “swagger. In Texas, we call that walking.”) It is as if killing bin Laden was an unpleasant task, for which Americans should feel at least some guilt and sorrow; that he deserved it but we didn’t want to do it and we hope the Muslim world realizes it is not about them, it was just one bad apple, etc. A smile, a gleam in the eye (even when thanking the unit that succeeded, acknowledging their exceptional professionalism and courage) – show some joy ! Bush (I and II), Reagan, Clinton – they all would have known how to gloat without overdoing it. But Obama underdid it. Whatever happened to “when the wicked perish there is song” (Proverbs 11:10) ? There were spontaneous outbursts by the crowds that assembled outside the White House, in Times Square, and even at Ground Zero – “USA, USA !” They had it right; Obama’s passion was missing, and somewhat discordant. Why ?
Defenders will say that he projected seriousness because the war is ongoing, new terror attacks might be in the offing, and we do not want to provoke these attacks through excessive boastfulness (as if terror against innocent civilians is brought upon them by their own deeds, and not the evil of the terrorists). But maybe there is something else afoot – the liberal’s aversion to war.
All this is reminiscent of the famous discussion in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 39b) that during the miraculous salvation at the Red Sea, which necessitated the complete annihilation of the Egyptian military, “the Heavenly angels wished to utter a song of praise before G-d but He rebuked them, saying ‘My handiwork (the Egyptians) is drowning in the sea, and you wish to utter a song before Me’?”
This passage is popularly understood as a reason not to celebrate the downfall of the wicked, and even the reason why we do not recite a full Hallel on the anniversary of that miracle, the Seventh Day of Pesach. (This is based on a Midrash, even though the Gemara Arachin 10a-b offers a wholly unrelated reason for reciting half-hallel that is the operative halachic principle here.)
Yet, although the angels were rebuked, Moshe and the Jews did sing a most glorious song upon beholding the death of the Egyptians (“I will sing to G-d for He is exalted above the arrogant, the horse and its rider are hurled into the sea… the mighty sank like lead into the water”), a song that we sing every single morning, and an event that we commemorate every morning and evening. And we do recite Hallel on the Seventh Day of Pesach, just omitting a few verses from two of the chapters; it is not as if we don’t celebrate the event at all but are sunk in grief over the loss of Egyptian life. And in a very similar event – the miraculous destruction of the armies of Sancheirev, the Assyrian king, that also took place on Pesach – the king Chizkiah was criticized by G-d for not singing a song of praise over the majestic salvation of the Jewish people and an abrupt end to the siege over Jerusalem (Sanhedrin 94a). So, which is it – do we sing or not sing, do we rejoice (like the crowds of Americans responding to the news of the death of our enemy or do we remain somber (like the Commander-in-Chief) ?
The answer is in the statement of the Talmud itself: the angels were rebuked by G-d, not the people who experienced the great victory – who endured the suffering and pain inflicted by the evildoer and now lived to see justice done. The “angels” reflect a divine perspective. From G-d’s perspective, evil itself is a terrible waste of human endeavor, and the death of every human being is a net loss. The most wicked individual was created by G-d in the “divine image,” which he then trampled and abused and then forfeited. We are supposed to acknowledge the divine perspective, because it is an aspiration for all human beings.
But we are human beings, and in the world of human beings, the suffering of innocent people troubles us and the destruction of the wicked delights us. That is why “when the wicked perish there is song” (Proverbs 11:10), and that is why Moshe sang the song that we sing every day since – about G-d’s exaltedness, and the triumph of righteousness that is heralded by the death of the wicked. That is why Chizkiah was punished and, according the Gemara, not designated as the Moshiach – he did not sing when he witnessed the hand of G-d. If we cannot feel joy when the wicked perish, then our love of justice is impaired.
Certainly, the boisterous and young crowds chanting “USA, USA” were not praising G-d or singing Hallel, which they might have had their educations and upbringing been different. But they were rejoicing in the death of the wicked and the triumph of good, something that should evoke joy and not guilt, and in the President, a facial expression of satisfaction rather than one who looks like he is chewing gravel.
The war is not over, but yesterday’s accomplishment was a great milestone. Like the death of Saddam Hussein that abruptly ended the fantasy of some Iraqis that he was still lurking and might return to power, the brutal death of Osama bin Laden sends a clear message to all Arab/Muslim terrorists: there is a day of reckoning for all. President Bush vowed in the aftermath of the Arab terror of September 11 that Osama bin Laden would be captured, “dead or alive.”
He was, and “dead” is better, and an occasion for rejoicing and thanksgiving. So kudos to the President and his team for a job well done, as bin Laden prepares to be greeted by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam and Arafat.