In the middle ages, we hung the decapitated heads of our enemies on spikes in public. Today, we post gruesome videos of their death online and cheer in the streets. Do not get me wrong. Bin Laden and Kadafi caused a lot of suffering and death and the world may very well be better off with them dead – I will make no judgment on that. However, what I will ask is, are we really any better than the extremists that cheered as the Trade Towers fell on September 11th if we celebrate their demise? True, the victims of 9/11 were innocent civilians and bin Laden was not, but in both cases, it is still a celebration of violence. Do we not have a moral obligation to behave with a level of decency and humanity?
Dehumanizing our enemies is nothing new. It is a necessary mindset crucial to successfully fighting a war and to training soldiers. If every soldier thinks of every enemy as a human being with a life and family, he would never be able to kill them. Military leaders would never be able to make key strategic and tactical decisions in war if they didn’t dehumanize the enemy and think of their actions in broad, vague terms as necessary steps in the ‘us vs. them’ fight. Giving our enemies labels like ‘evil’ or ‘monster’, therefore, is easy because they are not part of ‘us’. Many argue that it is easy to forget that leaders like bin Laden or Kadafi were human, and so the images of dead bodies stop being real. The kids that celebrate in the streets were likely caught up in a sense of relief and forgot that they were actually celebrating a death. Instead, for them, it was the end of an era of fear about what bin Laden was going to do next to cause more American deaths.
Revenge, and the desire to seek it, is also nothing new. In fact, Dr. Michael McCullough, a psychologist at the University of Miami and author of ‘Beyond Revenge’, argues that natural selection created our penchant for revenge because it helped our ancestors solve social dilemmas encountered during human evolution. It evolved as a natural deterrent response against people who threatened a community and a warning to anyone considering a similar crime. Furthermore, as Benedict Carey’s New York Times article points out, while the desire for revenge does lessen with time, it never completely goes away or dissipates. A part of memory hangs onto that desire, and Americans, it appears, held onto their desire for revenge for 10 years until bin Laden was killed.
However, I am more inclined to agree with Donald Hubin, who was quoted in the Columbus Dispatch as saying “Even with the most despicable of leaders… there should always be at least some awareness that there was a human being that was killed.” This isn’t like cheering in the streets when your team wins the Superbowl This isn’t a pep rally or an excuse to go out partying. This is a death. The end of a life. Much like it would be seen as tasteless to clap at an execution today, I find it tasteless and slightly barbaric to celebrate, to take pride in plastering newspaper headlines with rumors about bin Laden’s porn stash or bloody, gruesome images of a dead Kadafi. Whether natural or not, do we not have a responsibility to rise about a primitive thirst for blood and revenge? Wouldn’t we be better off (and improve our image abroad) if we followed President Obama’s example and handled the news with solemnness? Why not set an example for the rest of the world and show that we are able and willing to hold ourselves to a higher standard of civility?
– Simone M. Scully