What a difference a year makes. Last year I praised President Obama for not wanting to “spike the football” by releasing gruesome death photos of Osama bin Laden. But this year, forget spiking the football – the president is doing an end-zone dance.
The Bible says that when someone incurs the death penalty and his body is hanged on a tree as an example to others, he still must be buried the same day. We’re not to desecrate the body of even the most vicious killer because God created humans in His image. So America had no need to put out pictures of bin Laden missing a part of his cranium. The president last year stood by this and it was impressive.
And Proverbs 24 expressly forbids celebrating the death of our enemies. “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.” We fight bad guys like bin Laden because we have an obligation to protect the innocent by resisting the wicked. But we don’t gloat in it. War should never be about winning glory but protecting innocent life.
The obligation to protect the weak and punish their butchers is famously conveyed in Leviticus 19: “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” and again in Psalm 82, “Rescue the weak and needy; Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.”
Osama bin Laden was evil personified. We had a moral obligation to abhor him, as the Bible makes clear in Amos: “Hate the evil and love the good.” But while feelings of revulsion were justified, feelings of elation at his demise were not. This too President Obama understood last year and I praised him for it.
But all that has changed with his current victory dance.
We’re in an election year. I get it. But that doesn’t mean our morals should change. What was particularly strange was the president’s inviting NBC TV into the Situation Room, which had never before been penetrated by network cameras. There he spoke about how tough his decision had been to send in the SEALs to get bin Laden.
I am a huge fan of the mostly moral foreign policy of George W. Bush which largely held tyrants accountable for slaughtering their people. I contrast this with Obama’s lack of response after Ahmadinejad killed his own people; his leading from behind on Libya (even though in the end he did the right thing); his lack of leadership in the Arab Spring; and his failure to do much of anything in Syria.
But even Bush stumbled when he prematurely plastered “Mission Accomplished” on an aircraft carrier in May 2003. The same was true when Bush used words like “dead or alive” about bin Laden. The pursuit of glory in battle nearly always ends badly.
The American way is not to gloat in war. It was summed up by Colin Powell in a brilliant speech at the MTV Global Discussion in February 2002: “Far from being the Great Satan, I would say that we are the Great Protector. We have sent men and women from the armed forces of the United States to other parts of the world throughout the past century to put down oppression. We defeated Fascism. We defeated Communism. We saved Europe in World War I and World War II…. And when all those conflicts were over, what did we do? Did we stay and conquer? No…. We built them up. We gave them democratic systems which they have embraced totally to their soul. And did we ask for any land? No, the only land we ever asked for was enough land to bury our dead. And that is the kind of nation we are.”
This uniquely humble American ethos stems largely from Judeo-Christian ethics. We Jews have suffered more than most. But we stubbornly refuse to celebrate the demise of our enemies or any military triumph. King David is Judaism’s most famous warrior. Yet David’s request to build the Holy Temple was expressly denied by God because he had taken life, even in the defense of life: “But God said to me, ‘You shall not build a house for My name, because you have been a man of war and have shed blood’ ” (1 Chronicles 28).
Indeed, the great king was celebrated by generations of Jews not for dispatching enemy combatants but for his beautiful Psalms accompanied by harp and lyre.
Chanukah celebrates the miraculous military victory of the Maccabees over the Assyrian Greeks in the second century BCE. But it was the miracle of the lights of the menorah the Jews chose to emphasize rather than the necessary slaughter of enemy soldiers in self-defense.
Even on Passover, as we recite the Ten Plagues that culminated in the killing of the Egyptian firstborn, we pour wine out of our glasses so as not to revel in the demise of our enemies.