On September 11th, I had the day off. Ordinarily, I would have been in the city, but a doctor’s appointment kept me in Queens.
As the day wound on, I grew angry. I began to try to hunt down friends who I knew worked downtown. Noelle…check. Tina…check. Mike…check. Patrick….OK.
Then the first phone call arrived. “Mike, it’s Brett (my then priest-boss). We’re not sure but we think that Debbie Welsh was on one of those United flights that crashed.” Debbie was a parishioner who sang in our choir and had just conducted an evening for our young adult group on marriage with her husband, Patrick. They were wonderful and in love with each other after years of marriage. She had beaten skin cancer and had been a flight attendant for years, often bringing home extra airplane meals for the homeless in her Manhattan neighborhood. In short, Debbie was a great gal. Her smile beamed each week in the choir and her tall frame stood out and always made me smile right back at her.
But my smile turned to sadness that day. I hugged my then, fiancee when I saw her after school ended. Her classroom that overlooked downtown Manhattan from the edge of Queens had drawn their shades to block the fall of the towers from the eyes of little children.
We were all afraid and angry.
We went to support Patrick, Debbie’s husband, sometime in the next evening. It was hard to watch him mourn his young wife. They were a great couple and I enjoyed their company. They were hysterically funny and complimented each other well.
Then I got more news. My wife’s cousin Jeannine, a distant cousin, but nonetheless hers, was confirmed as one of those who died in the towers. Even later, I’d find that my Fordham classmate, a firefighter, Tom Cullen would meet the same fate, heroically dying while trying to save others. He always wanted to be a fireman. It was all I really knew about him, other than I thought he was a nice guy and had married my other classmate, Sue.
Three lives…now gone. Senseless. The wrath of a madman, or madmen, or an evil culture. Who knew just who they were?
The face of that madness, Osama bin Laden, went on the lam. And yesterday that ended. It ended in another senseless death, a death that did not have to happen. A death that results from the hatred that terrorists always breed. A death that was brought on by the nightmare of violence.
“Good riddance,” I thought at first. My second thought was an impression that President Obama had just captured not only America’s most hated enemy, but also re-election. I wondered how he was able to do this and was impressed that he was able to do this in his first administration when our last President could not accomplish this in his 8 years.
Being a pro-lifer, I’m ashamed to say that I was nearly, but not exactly, joyful at the sound of Bin Laden’s death. I looked to my wife and said, “I know it’s not right to celebrate this, to take pleasure in vengeance, but I have to say that I’m not going to lose too much sleep about this death tonight.” Perhaps it is the cost of war, innocents die and many others lose their innocence.
I guess I’m not exactly able to offer the forgiveness that I know God offers Bin Laden without reservation today, the same forgiveness that is offered to each one of us for our sins. I wonder if Bin Laden accepted that forgiveness? Part of me hopes that he once again, rejected God’s offer of peaceful reconciliation. Truly hell would gain a most welcome guest, a prince of darkness to rival the personification of evil itself.
For Millennials, September 11th was a seminal moment. Coupled with the madness of Columbine, the world suddenly became a very precarious place. Last night, many young people filled the streets and while all seems right with the world right now, we all fail to see that things are not any different. War still rages on many fronts and terrorists still plan attempts to bomb subways and buildings and not merely disturb our peace, but eradicate it.
This does not look one bit like the peaceful kingdom of God.
Americans, in general, like retribution. They often favor capital punishment and continue to welcome it in the joyful streets of our country this day.
But why would we not welcome peace and forgiveness? Wouldn’t that be a larger dagger thrust into the madness of terrorism? Ending the hate of sinful men can only begin when we kill hatred ourselves and not when hatred stops another human heartbeat, even in the name of justice.
Has terrorism won a further victory with our sure-to-be fleeting joy?
One person who lost their father in the 9-11 disaster summed it up pretty well. “It’s hard for me to rejoice when a human being is dead, I know it’s wrong to be excited and happy. But that’s how I feel.”
Indeed and who would blame him? Nobody will judge anyone for rejoicing over the next few days, but perhaps it’s time to judge ourselves?
Can we forgive Bin Laden? Can we pray for God to have mercy on his soul? Can we weep for the senseless death we find in any war? Include his name in the prayer of the faithful?
Answering no, only means that the enemy continues to win–even when it feels right to celebrate.
Perhaps God can forgive Bin Laden and in God’s perfect reconciliation we find our human imperfection reaching its limits? After all, we are not Jesus, who called from his cross for mercy, not for himself, but for those who nailed him to the wood.
But that merciful call goes out to us as well. It haunts us to pray for peace and not pain, reconciliation, but not revenge.
Can we forgive Osama Bin Laden?
I hope one day I can. And because I believe that Debbie, Tom and Jeannine are firmly united with God in eternal salvation, it helps me to also believe that their sainthood already gives them the perfection to do what I and probably many others find so difficult, nay, even repulsive or impossible.
Our resolve in defeating the enemy needs to grow much deeper and grow roots beyond retribution. Our final victory lies when the hatred of terrorism leads beyond the self-congratulations of patriotism. We will have defeated the spirit of terrorism when we begin to stop hating these enemies, even under the disguise of cheap justice.
We can rejoice only when peace reigns instead of vengeance.
So today let us pray for that peace. That God can turn the hearts of those who undoubtedly will seek retribution on the United States of America and their allies. Let us pray for non violent solutions to differences, to avoid war at all costs.
And may we forgive those who trespass against us, so that we may not be led into the temptation to celebrate vengeance.
And instead be delivered from all that is evil. Amen.
For more on the Catholic response to today’s news check out these links:
Deacon Greg has a great reflection on the troubling cheering in the streets.
But is the taking of another human life, no matter how despicable that life was, something to rejoice over? The vanquishing of Bin Laden calls for a more sober response. A quiet, grateful exhale, and two simple words: “Mission accomplished.” Then, shake the dust from our boots, and move on. The story isn’t over. There is still more work to do.
The reality remains that the death of Osama Bin Laden doesn’t end what he began. And displays like the one above only serve to make us seem as vengeful as the Afghans who giddily danced in the streets after the Twin Towers collapsed.
We’re better than that.
Br Dan Horan has much in the way of great material today:
A biblical view on Bin Laden’s death
And a reflection on celebrating over Bin Laden’s death.
A good money quote here:
“As a follower of Jesus Christ, I do not celebrate any human being’s violent death. My prayers go out to the entire world tonight. May the fear that has shaped our world in the last decade cease and may peace prevail. No more war. No more violence,” my Facebook status reads tonight.
And of course the Vatican has made a statement as well:
Osama Bin Laden – as everyone knows – has had the gravest responsibility for spreading hatred and division among people, causing the deaths of countless people, and exploiting religion for this purpose.
Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of everyone before God and man, and hopes and pledges that every event is not an opportunity for a further growth of hatred, but of peace.”