Osama bin Laden is dead

Usama bin Laden is dead.  Baruch Dayan Emet: Blessed is the Judge of Truth / the true Judge.  The phrase means both of those things.

These words of Jewish acknowledgement of death seem ruthlessly appropriate.  So, somehow, does the word ruthless.  As in, a ruthless quest for justice:  How will Bin Laden be judged, against a standard of ultimate truth and justice?  I know what I think.  But only God knows, says our tradition.  No human knows the absolute truth: It is only the Holy One of Blessing who is the True Judge, and the Judge of the Truth. Hence the traditional words of blessing — not blessing a death, but acknowledging its mystery.

I don’t rejoice or celebrate at the death of a human being.  As many commentators have acknowledged today, we don’t even know if this will allow us to breathe a sigh of relief; in fact, it’s likely to raise the threat short-term.  But after those ritual words, acknowledging our common humanity by acknowledging our common mortality, I found myself thinking quite pragmatically.   Mostly about our President:  Why didn’t he make the most of this?  An official press conference, with all possible pomp and circumstance, in front of American flags and the Great Seal of the United States, and with survivors of 9/11 and family members of victims behind him.  The low-key announcement was perhaps less manipulative, but I I think it was also a terribly missed opportunity.  Other than “At my direction,” I didn’t notice him mentioning his own role.

The President announced that we “took custody of his body.”  And I started thinking about the people who will question whether or not he really was killed.  It helps, a bit, that it’s been celebrated all around the world, but skeptics, doubters, and disbelievers will have no trouble discounting everything except for the opinions of people they have chosen to believe.  Conspiracy theorists still publish the idea that the World Trade Center was mined and bombed by a secret American demolition squad.  You think a little thing like having Bin Laden’s death acknowledged around the world will convince them?

So I was thinking about his body, and how we’ve seen awful scenes of bodies paraded through the streets and put on display.  Throughout history, victors have displayed the bodies of those they have killed.  And I see now that it’s not just taunting, bragging, boasting, or humiliating the dead and their kin.  It’s confirmation.  The more people who see the body, the more witnesses there are.  The more belief there will be.

So I was dismayed to hear that the Navy Seals (presumably) who carried out the raid and took custody of Bin Laden’s body had already buried it as sea.  (I wonder if that even counts as burial in Islam.  It doesn’t in Judaism.)

NPR comments that Islamic law requires burial within 24 hours (remember Dodi Al-Fayed, Princess Diana’s companion who died with her in the car crash: She was buried with pomp and circumstance a week later, but he was buried the next day).  Burial at sea, of course, to prevent creating a pilgrimage site.  So it makes sense.  And NPR also reports that DNA was taken from his body and has already been tested.

But a young congregant of mine whom I happened to see this evening asked his mother, “So it was really him they killed?  And not his brother?”  Obviously the rumors are going around grade school.  And too many of us aren’t much more advanced than grade school, I fear.  I’m waiting to hear someone say, “Oh, they fabricate/fake evidence all the time.”  For some people, the paucity of witnesses will itself be taken as proof that there’s something that “they” didn’t want us to know.

And all this happened on Yom HaShoah.  I thought, of course, of a comparison with Adolf Hitler; and I heard it made on the radio, too.  It’s not an apt comparison; there are too many differences, including the fact that Al-Qaeda’s sources of power and command are too diffuse for the loss of one leader to represent the collapse of the whole organization.  But I was struck by the parallels of tragedy, of death inflicted on an unimaginable scale.  (For us, 3,000 Americans in one morning is unimaginable.)  As Jews, we are still figuring out how appropriately to commemorate Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) after more than 60 years.  As Americans, coming up on only the 10th anniversary of September 11th, we have the beginnings of national rituals of mourning, but the liturgy, so to speak, will be developing for many years.  I remember in the week following September 11th, 2001, I turned to Lamentations and lamenting Psalms, finding solace in the truth that others had experienced these emotions — shock, grief, horror — before me, after ancient national disasters.

This is the power of a tradition that is millenia-old.  It guides and sustains us with its accumulated wisdom, transmitted down the years.  As long as we keep updating it, figuring out how to express and embody its enduring values in ways that fit our situation, it has something to offer us.  It teaches us what to do when we don’t know what to do.

Osama bin Laden is dead.  Baruch Dayan Emet. ברוך דין אמת.