Monday, May 2, 2011


(For anyone who might be interested, I have a report today on Persist: The Blog about my experience at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.)

So what's a Buddhist to say about last night's news? The death of Osama bin Laden came as a huge surprise, with the President interrupting our evening with his announcement. Do we condemn the taking of life, or celebrate the demise of a man whose past actions and future intentions are equally and unquestionably evil? In an ideal world, retribution is hardly a noble, less still a Buddhist practice. It can be said to merely perpetuate the cycle of violence and to generate unwished-for karmic response. On the other hand, in the real world, I'll confess to a certain satisfaction, and a sense of justice fulfilled.

Will the careful preparation and apparently impeccable execution of this operation do anything to silence--or even quiet--those critics who complain about Obama's equanimity and patience, his insistence on examining a situation from all sides, with an eye to the eventual outcome? Probably not. And yet the story, insofar as it is known to date, suggests that he brought all those qualities to bear, along with a great deal of courage. The action was surely fraught with risks. It could have very easily ended up like Jimmy Carter's disastrous--and widely ridiculed--attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran. Its success was just as surely due to the several months that were devoted, since last August, to the verification of intelligence and the meticulous planning. It was, from all I hear, a faultless operation, for which we have not only the skills of the special forces involved, but also the rigor of their commander to thank.

The statement announcing the event was also classical Obama. He carefully avoided boasting, claimed an appropriate amount of credit for himself and was generous with the credit he assigned to others--including his predecessor, whose rash abandonment of the hunt for Osama in favor of a dubious and unrelated war proved a grave setback to his promise for justice. In reminding the American people that this was not a part of some war against Islam, he wisely and generously recalled the same assertion made by George W. Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. His tone was measured, calm, authoritative, and he projected a quiet, confident strength--beside which his current critics and opponents look like a bunch of ill-informed and mean-spirited hysterics. Chalk a big one up for Obama in the political sphere.

And then... retribution is one thing. Prevention is another. Being of a generation who remember such things, here's a question I ask myself: knowing what we now know about 20th century history--and had we been able--could we, should we have assassinated Adolf Hitler in the later 1930s, before he unleashed his madness on the world? Should we, if we could, assassinate Colonel Muammar Ghadaffi today? Where there's a deadly snake that threatens whole populations and that could be clearly and cleanly rendered harmless by decapitation, are we right to cut off its head? My head and heart say one thing; my gut says something else entirely.

Any thoughts?


mandt said...

The truth: all power is snake.

PamB. said...

I've struggled with this too. The best way I can understand this right now is that we bring death for many reasons - to sustain us, to end suffering, as well as for greed or brutality. What is important is to check our intentions, and watch that in our reactions there is a recognition that in addition to every other evil thing that bin laden was, he also contained the spirit. This was honored during the rites that were completed before his body was released to the ocean. His death was a regrettable necessity that he brought unto himself, for even at the end, he put up a cowardly resistance instead of surrendering.

CHI SPHERE said...

The struggle between good and evil is always empty since his destruction is only makes his end. The war is still on and we will endue it long after his body is dust.
Peace is the goal and the paradox is that aggression never ends.

PeterAtLarge said...

If your snake is the tempter, MandT, I agree. I also believe, though, that power can be wisely used for the benefit of humankind.

Thanks for the comment, Pam. Noted. And one person's "cowardly" is another's "courageous"! I heard that a woman was used as human shield, so that might be what you're referring to?

PamB. said...

So I'm afraid I have to abandon my earlier comment. My young daughter, who was not yet born on 9/11, asked tonight what had happened yesterday. And I found myself lying, telling her that we had "caught" a man we had been looking for for a long time, who had done very bad things. I did not want to say that we had killed him, because I do not want her to learn that it is OK to solve problems with violence.
So no matter what justification I had placed on this, when I looked at the face of my daughter, I realized there is no escaping the truth - Violence is violence, and until we choose otherwise, it will be our future, and the reasons we provide won't really matter.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I struggle to reconcile Buddhist beliefs with the acts committed yesterday, too. I wrote a short post on my feelings about the celebrations of this death and the comments, as always, were more interesting than my post. You are definitely invited!