As someone who worked at Ground Zero in the days and weeks following 9/11 I rejoiced to hear that Osama Bin Laden’s long reign of terror, which had dealt death, destruction and untold misery to millions across the world, had finally come to an end. As a Christian, though, I cannot rejoice at the death of a human being, no matter how monstrous he was.
On the morning of Sept. 11 2001, I was working at my desk at America magazine in Manhattan. My mother, who lives in Philadelphia, called me to tell me that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. When I ran out of my office and looked down Sixth Avenue, I could see the towers smoldering, inky black smoke pouring out of their tops. Already sirens were blaring, and men and women were running through the streets weeping, frantically trying to make calls on cell phones to loved ones.
The next few days were a horrible blur for me, and for all New Yorkers. For all Americans. On the night of Sept. 11, I worked at Chelsea Piers in New York, along with firefighters, rescue workers and chaplains. We awaited survivors who never came. On the morning and afternoon of Sept. 12, I sat with numbed family members in a large room at the New School in downtown Manhattan, poring through hospital lists of survivors, of whom there were almost none. Then, on Sept. 13, while working at Chelsea Piers, a police officer offered me a ride to Ground Zero, then called simply “the site.” There I spent the next few days and weeks, in between my assignments at work, and along with other Jesuits, ministering to rescue workers amid the smoldering and stinking wreckage, in some places still in flames, before the mass grave. We walked over the awful detritus of the attacks; we prayed with firefighters who had lost friends; we counseled EMTs who had seen horrible things; we celebrated Mass in the rubble; and we emerged covered in the gray dust of Ground Zero every day.
So I am not blind to the death and destruction caused by Osama bin Laden.
Yet Christians are in the midst of the Easter Season, when Jesus, the innocent one, not only triumphantly rose from the dead but, in his earthly life, forgave his executioners from the cross, in the midst of excruciating pain. Forgiveness is the hardest of all Christian acts. (Love, by comparison, is easier.) It is also, according to Jesus, something that is meant to have no limit. No boundaries. Peter once asked him how often he was supposed to forgive. Seven times? “Not seven times,” answered Jesus, "but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” In other words, times without number. “Forgive your brother or sister from your heart,” he said. This is not to negate the place of judgment and justice in God's eyes, for such a denial would mean that we believe in a God who cares not for human affairs. But judgment and punishment, says Jesus, is up to God.
So the question is whether the Christian can forgive a murderer, a mass murderer, even--as in the case of Osama bin Laden--a coordinator of mass murder across the globe. I’m not sure I would be able to do this, particularly if I had lost a loved one. But as with other “life” issues, we cannot overlook what Jesus asks of us, hard as it is to comprehend. Or to do.
For this is a “life” issue as surely as any other. The Christian is not simply in favor of life for the unborn, for the innocent, for those we care for, for our families and friends, for our fellow citizens, for our fellow church members or even for those whom we consider good, but for all. All life is sacred because God created all life. This is what lies behind Jesus’s most difficult command: “I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
It is also what lies behind the Vatican’s statement today, which balances the desire for an end to terror with the sanctity of life, no matter how odious the person: “Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions for this purpose. 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.”
And it is behind the most Christian of acts by Pope John Paul II, beatified on the same day that Osama bin Laden was killed. Perhaps the confluence of events is providential. As someone who lived under Nazism and Communism, John Paul was no stranger to terror or murder. But he also was a Christian who knew the centrality of forgiveness, even for the most grievous of crimes. In 1980, he was the victim of an assassination attempt by Mehmet Ali Agca, a Turkish ultra-nationalist. One of Blessed John Paul’s first acts after his recovery was to journey to Agca’s jail cell and offer him the costly grace of forgiveness.
Osama bin Laden was responsible for the murder of thousands of men and women in the United States, for the deaths and misery of many thousands across the world, and for the deaths of many servicemen and women, who made the supreme sacrifice of their lives. I am glad he has left the world. And I pray that his departure may lead to peace.
But as a Christian, I am asked to pray for him and, at some point, forgive him. And that command comes to us from Jesus, a man who was beaten, tortured and killed. That command comes from a man who knows a great deal about suffering. It also comes from God.