Friday, May 06, 2011

The quality of mercy

There's been a lot of talk about my country losing it's soul because we finally managed to off one of the most dangerous mass murderers of the last few decades, who was still involved in plotting to kill thousands more.

I was raised to believe than any man's death diminishes my own life and that it's wrong to celebrate it, but although that's what I still believe in general, it never occurred to me to think those people famously pictured in Times Square on VJ day, were doing anything immoral or that they should instead have been in morning for the enemy dead. They were celebrating the end of the killing of millions. They were celebrating life and survival, which are as close to victory as we mortals can get.

In the celebration of the Passover, Jews customarily withhold a drop of wine in remembrance of the Egyptian soldiers said to have died in pursuit of the fleeing slaves. It's a nice gesture I've always thought well of, but although I consider the deed done by the US Navy to be a solemn one; one that shouldn't include parading impaled skulls or photos of the dead in some barbaric way, I'm glad they did it at long last. Think of what might have been and what might not have been had it been done 10 years ago instead of waging war.

I have to wonder what the world would have been like if someone had managed to invade Germany's sovereignty and Adolph Hitler's personal liberty by assassinating him in his living room in 1936. Can we really call the men who plotted to kill him morally bankrupt or brave heroes? No, I think this would be a better world if we hadn't had to do it the hard way, if you'll forgive one of the largest understatements ever made. I could think of other horrors involving the death of tens of millions and the suffering of hundreds of billions that could have been averted by such actions.

Of course, you can see that I'm not a moral absolutist who sees morality as a set of fixed rules not subject to interpretation or to extenuating exceptions, nor do I see the law as something that should stand in the way of justice or believe in a mercy to one whose life has been a celebration of mercilessness to thousands of innocents. I saw no moral dilemma involved in the choice to hunt down the people who murdered innocent athletes in Munich and I see none whatever in the killing of Osama bin Laden. I find the torture of suspects far more repugnant, yet not quite so much as sawing Daniel Pearl's head off -- or most importantly the acts of terrorism bin Laden arranged. Can we even talk of such people being owed any respect or consideration or mercy much less of how wicked we are by exterminating them on or off the battlefield?

I certainly see less national soul loss than we incurred in the bombing of Iraq, the destruction of tens of thousands of lives and the exile of millions just to kill one dictator - the loss of civilian life in the bombing of Dresden or Hanoi or Tokyo, to name a few.

No, I'm sorry. Respect for human life is not diminished and in a way is affirmed by violating the 'sovereignty' of Pakistan and the sanctity of Osama's bedroom and standing on principle against it requires a kind of selective set of values that mystify me. I cannot morn the murderer in the same way or to the same degree as the murdered and if I have a soul that mourns or rejoices, I have it because of the timely deaths of all the evil men who would have killed me with a smile had they prospered. And think too of the souls that would have been lost to this man had he lived. Let's rejoice for their sake.

1 comment:

Brad said...

The church bell over the road from where I live in Hobart Tasmania, happened to ring this morning, at a time I could hear. The phrase came to mind from Donne's meditations..." do not ask for whom the bell rings....any mans death diminishes tolls for thee." I started looking it up on the net, curious to remember more from high school about Donne. Instead some vagary of google took me to your blog. I tapped human voices.

Capt. Fog! I read a lot of Paul Auster, who often features a Fogg character. Auster is my American reference point. And the whole world seems so American. Even China is becoming American, with a kind of vengeance.

I am reading Moby Dick currently. Your prose reminded me of Melville. You sounded sonorously informed. But then I read on. Even someone who might well be Quaker or at least progressive seems seduced by something we all may well regret. A chance to show some other way.

Surely it was less an accident that this terrorist was shot, assassinated, murdered without process, than a deep tide that sucked a good enough President right in.

As if assassinating Hitler before the ovens and Dresden, could have averted us from realizing that Ahab and all his ilk, are simply mad. For surely, we learned something in the struggle, of world wars, about not following dictators and about genuine democracy. To believe otherwise, is to think that humans cannot learn very much and that the whole experiment of life, to be human, is a trifle, mere as moss on a rock, a barnacle on a whale.

"Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord". But we are human, and cannot avert the tides that swell in us. But let's not name them anything other than, what they are. Revenge is an evil motive. Nothing will be learned from it, nothing gained, except another round of infamy and destruction. Not everywhere is American. Some believe in other ways, and stand for other causes.