Life as an Extreme Sport

A Bad Buddhist’s Thoughts on bin Laden’s Death

How can you be a Buddhist, and celebrate someone’s death? Isn’t that contradictory?

I’m sure the question is going around. I’ve seen quite a few people already make the broader and more vague “could never be happy anyone has died” – to which I say, really? Really? I realize that World War II ended 66 years ago, but really? You would have been sad Hitler died? I just question the sentiment, that’s all.

And before anyone wants to tell me that I’m Godwinning things from the outset, let me say that Hitler is actually relevant to the conversation, at least in regards to being Buddhist and finding the deep relief and release of joy that comes from that, from bin Laden’s death. How is it relevant, aside from the synchronicity in dates of death?

Well, most of the conversations that exist with the Dalai Lama regarding violence and the deaths of someone so horribly evil do revolve around Hitler and the Nazis, for somewhat obvious reasons.

The last time I saw His Holiness speak, someone asked him whether violence was always a bad thing. He clarified that, like all things, it depends. Swiftly smacking someone to bring them out of shock – or to bring them to sense – is certainly an act of violence. But it can also be seen as an act of compassion. And it’s possible to extend that out – sometimes, the most compassionate thing to do might be to end someone’s life.

But, you would be right to point out that the scenario here, with bin Laden, and even the theoretical with Hitler, is not able to be spun as a compassionate gesture for that individual (unless you want to go very theoretical and talk about karma and such, which is just beyond relevant for now). Then what?

In Beyond Dogma, the following question is asked of His Holiness:

Would you have also refused to take up arms against Hitler?

His Holiness had the following response:

I don’t know. We have to go into a bit of detail. At the time Nazism was taking root and beginning to gain strength and importance, I would personally have made every effort to stop it, if I could have at the time.

Not long ago, when I was in Poland, I visited the camp at Auschwitz where thousands of innocent people were exterminated. I stayed for a moment in the gas chamber and when I saw the crematorium I was filled with profound sadness. The worst was when I came upon the piles of shoes and human hair. In the middle of all those shoes were little children’s shoes; they had been patched, the shoes of a poor child. I asked myself why did they kill these people? Why? Let us imagine that at the time there was a small group of SS on one side, and a large group of Jewish prisoners, French and Polish, on the other. If the possibility had really existed that by eliminating those few SS men all the prisoners might be set free, who knows? If I had had a weapon, and were really sure of being able to… I don’t know, it’s very hard to say. Whatever the case, this is mere speculation, so it doesn’t do much good to talk about it. I think that if you had been there, you would have sided with me.

If the temporal leader of Tibetan Buddhists, when faced with the possibility of saving lives in the face of abject evil, gives credit to the possibility that violence may have been the answer… I’m not entirely sure why I, an admittedly very bad Buddhist (witness, please, the glass of wine I’m nursing as I write this), would be expected to have any different a reaction.

Was bin Laden the “same kind” of evil as Hitler? I think whenever we get into trying to quantify evil, it becomes a game of splitting hairs to some other ends. What is important to me is that bin Laden master-minded events that had horrific loss of life Sept 11, 2001, and his continued presence was a rallying point for likeminded people who see America as the Great Satan. If one man could outwit this great nation, how great a nation could it be?

And yes, America has flaws, from how it handles foreign relations to how it’s handled everything involving the post-9/11 world, from our individual freedoms to the way we treat people in overseas countries.

But it was only through blind luck and hitting snooze a few times – very much “there but for the grace of God” – that my family at the time did not lose a very dear member, who was supposed to be in the WTC that long ago September morning. My father was flying that day, and I spent hours not knowing where he was – what part of the country, what airline he had been on, if he was alive or dead. I lived within blocks of the Seattle WTC, and no one knew at the time who was still in the air or what the other targets were. It was a terror unlike anything I had ever experienced.

I was lucky enough to not lose anyone that day. Many people I know were not so fortunate. In the years after, I did lose people to the aftermath. A dear friend is a veteran of that war, and although he is strong and stubborn, that war left a deep impression on him, and it’s something he will always live with.

I am a Navy brat, from a long line of servicemen who proudly served our country. I have had at least one relative in every conflict on American soil since there was such a thing as American soil. I take my ability to be fiercely critical of my country as a requirement of being fiercely patriotic in a way that goes beyond pomp and circumstance, and instead speaks to being deeply committed to the political process and participation within it. Aside from having the certifications saying that I should run towards a disaster to help out, I also seem to have this moral code that demands it – and I recognize a kinship in those people who died, and those who worked at the sites for so much longer attempting rescues, and then recovering remains.

And I know what this death will mean. I know what it will mean for our terror alerts and the threats of retaliations. I know that it will function as a martyr to the cause, and a rallying point for people who need an excuse. And my Buddhism comes to play here, as I feel nothing but deep sadness and compassion for people whose lives are so bad that death in the name of jihad is a better prospect than living.

But I also know what this death will mean for the people who have made sacrifices. I know that this helps to validate those sacrifices – the lost lives, the permanent disability, the nightmares and PTSD. It was not in vain. And that is a powerful message as well.

How can I be a Buddhist and find relief and the concomitant joy in the news of the death of bin Laden? Because I am not a Buddhist first, I am a human being first. A deeply flawed human being who’s just tripping one step at a time along this journey called life, trying to navigate the rapids as they appear and keep my head above the water as best as possible.

Or perhaps it does go back to that deeper idea of the most compassionate thing you can sometimes do is a brief, violent act; as my maternal grandfather would have said, sometimes, all you can do is shoot the rabid dog.