Saturday, May 7, 2011

Bin Laden v. Tornado. What would my Dad say?

The death of Osama Bin Laden came at a strange time for those of us who live in cities devastated by last week's tornados. What Osama and a tornado have in common is devastation. Both the acts of terror on 9-11, for which he took credit, and the tornados that hit the south last week were unexpected and, at least for the victims, completely random. Both of these disasters, one man-wrought, the other natural, ripped holes in our landscape and in our hearts, and left fear and, yes, hatred. It seems we need someone to hate when bad things happen. Of course, Bin Laden made that easy. It's hard to hate a tornado.
   The outpouring of jubilation over the death of this murderer was disturbing to many, including myself. I have no doubt he was guilty of inciting, if not inflicting, great sorrow on the world. But does his death really solve anything? Does rejoicing in his absence make our world safer, or happier? Some say we are at a greater risk now because of the actions taken to hunt him down. The truth is, we were never safe. It is a hollow victory, an illusion, at best.
   Friends have asked me what the Buddhist perspective is on the killing of Bin Laden, and I've been somewhat surprised that I know the answer. It is this: Buddhism prescribes that killing any sentient being is wrong; however, there are exceptions. Buddhism isn't totally pacifist. In fact, one could argue that Buddhism is quite the opposite. Buddhists are activists of the highest order. Action, fueled by right intention, is part of the Buddhist path to enlightenment. We don't get many points for sitting around just thinking good thoughts; and we never get points for reacting to a situation. Action rather than reaction is always the goal. And this brings me back to the point: If one kills with the intention of saving lives, or ending further suffering by curtailing the evil actions of someone (ie: killing in self-defense), the action is justifiable. And yet, killing is never a laudable act in Buddhism, and the operative term is with the right intention.
   Jack was in utero when the 9-11 attacks occurred. He doesn't understand what it meant to live through that terrifying moment in history, but we talk about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how they are wrong, yet somehow necessary. It's confusing for both of us. Bin Laden's death is easier to bring down to a third grade level because there are so many tropes in contemporary epic literature (and cinema) I can point to for example. Star Wars and Harry Potter, to name two. In both of these epics, the hero/boy must face unspeakable evil with the realization that he too has the DNA for that same evil within him. Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter both carry the scars of the evil that is pervasive in their (mythical) worlds. Luke's father, Darth Vadar, is the embodiment of evil; and Harry discovers that he has had Lord Voldemort's powers coursing through his wizardy-veins since his babydom. Both boys have been chosen and, in turn, must choose to either follow the path of enlightenment or the path of evil. And for both of these heroes the challenge comes down to this: Will they allow hate and fear to overcome their love and compassion? Will they kill out of hate and revenge, or to protect all that is good? It is what is in their hearts at the moment they strike down their foe that matters. That's Buddhist practice. So as odd as this may sound, I hope the Navy SEALS who shot and killed Bin Laden did so with love in their hearts. I hope they went into that mission, not feeling hatred and vengeance towards a man, or a culture or a cult, or religion, but with the sense that they were protecting others from future harm.
   In his final days, my father's thoughts turned to another Evil Empire: Imperial Japan. His ability to speak had been diminished by a stroke, but his mind was quite clear. He told me he now thought dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was wrong. "So many people suffered," he said. "And why?"
   "We had no choice," I countered, trying to sooth him. "If we hadn't dropped those bombs, how many more lives would have been lost in war? Japan would not give up. The United States knew that. You knew that Dad, you were there."
Members of the 165th Infantry after "takin' Makin" island in the Pacific.
My Dad is standing in the back row. He's fifth from the right, wearing a cap, of course.
   My father—who served in the Army in the Pacific, and was involved in mortal combat on the islands of Makin and Saipan—previously espoused that the nuclear strike on Japan ensured the end of the war—and most likely saved his life. He would have been among the troops sent into Japan to fight. On Saipan, he witnessed the fierceness of Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender. He saw the horrors of those would not come peacefully from caves and bunkers on the island. He was told these soldiers chose to be burned alive by flame throwers, rather than face a fate worse than death in their culture: surrender and dishonor. In truth, the Japanese soldiers and civilians on the islands had been told by their own propagandists that, if they were captured, the Americans would torture them unmercifully, or worse.
   As his life neared its close, my Dad found a different perspective. In effect, he wished that he had gone on to the island of Japan to fight and possible die, rather than have innocent civilians killed and hideously maimed in the nuclear blasts. At the end of his life, Dad thought this military act—long justified for ending a most-bloody war—was brought about by the United States' desire to flex it's superior muscle rather than for the noble intention of ending pain and suffering.
   As my Dad would say, "What is done, is done." Yet, we should consider what these recent events mean to us as we move forward in the world. Within one week, hundreds of people lost their lives in the storms that ravaged the South, and a notorious war criminal was killed, justice served. Today, do we sit with fear and hatred towards future tornados or towards the threat of future acts of terrorism? Both are inevitable. We cannot control terrorist acts any more than we can control the weather, but we can control our reactions to the events that occur to us and around us. Rejoicing the in the death of another, no matter how evil the person, hardly seems the appropriate response. I can understand this reaction, but it does no good in the world, and in fact, may encourage more harm. No, I did not have a loved one in the World Trade Center, nor on Flight 93 or at the Pentagon that day, but I do have a sense of what it means to forgive one's enemies. And I thank my father for that beautiful example and for sharing the perspective he gained in those blessed days at the end of his life.


  1. From what I have read, the Japanese army and it's civilan citizenry were staedfastly devoted to their Emperor, almost as if he were a deity.

    Regarding the nuclear warheads dropped by the Enola Gay, President Truman dropped leaflets all over the area begging Japan to surrender..pleading. The loss of life from a full invasion would have been massive for both sides; reaching an end to a ground war there could have taken years.......just ask the Russians.

    I agree with you. The nuclear holocaust was totally a show of American testorone and muderous, but by that time, the US was fed up with getting tired of a 2-front war and after all of the money dumped into the Manhattan Projct, the death weapons were going to be dropped come hell or high water.

    It launched a mutation of kharma that created a spasm of anti-American sentiment that exists to this day.

  2. I did lose a loved one on 9/11 and I did not spend the day rejoicing or dancing in the streets when I heard the news. Instead I wept. I cried for the next 2 days. I relieved the horrors of 9/11 again, the images of searching for my sister in law on 9/12, wandering the desolated, ash filled streets of Manhattan looking for survivors only to be told there were none. I wondered what my brother was going through,only I couldn't ask him. We are not allowed to talk about IT with him. He is too scarred, to stubborn to seek help. I did feel a sense of relief for HER family. Maybe some closure would come. Maybe my sister in Law would be at peace in Heaven.

  3. Susan: My heart goes out to you and your family. One thing I feel certain of is that your sister-in-law has found peace. It is those who must go on who feel the most profound pain and loss now. I pray that your brother's suffering will end soon, perhaps now he can let go of his fear. I can't imagine the pain he must have experienced and still does. You are a wonderful sister to be there for him. You are an amazing, resilient person.

  4. I'm grateful for the perspective that you and your father's experiences have provided. For almost a decade this country has been indoctrinated with a wish for vengeance and revenge, which also conveniently served the political objectives, as it does today. Brigid, THANK YOU for effectively unpacking some of the emotional complexities of this event, and for providing a perspective that, at first blush, may appear to some as being unpatriotic non-Christian.