May 12, 2011
Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader responsible for the attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001, is dead. The planes that crashed into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field left nearly 3,000 people dead. Now, 10 years later, the mastermind of that murderous plot is himself dead. When President Obama announced the success of the targeted operation against bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, he remarked, “On nights like this one, we can say to families who lost loved ones to al Qaeda's terror: justice has been done.”
Immediately, at the news of bin Laden’s death, there were spontaneous shouts of relief and joy. Crowds gathered in Boston, New York and Washington to celebrate. Years of tedious and unrelenting work finally achieved their goal: the ending of one man’s authority over a network of terrorism bent on destroying the freedom of the West.
All realize that, by the taking out of bin Laden, terrorism has not been vanquished. Only one terrorist has been stopped. Yet, his demise has been a long-awaited milestone in the road to freedom from tyranny, a road that passes through every age.
During the early Renaissance, Donatello’s famous bronze sculpture “Judith and Holofernes” (1460) stood proudly in front of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. This work of art gave witness to another milestone along that road to freedom. Donatello took the inspiration for his sculpture from the deuterocanonical book of Judith (c.150 B.C.). He used a biblical image to make a bold, artistic statement to the citizens of Florence about the response to oppression in their day. The book of Judith is a didactic narrative set in the seventh century before Christ. Nebuchadnezzar and the Assyrians were oppressing and terrorizing God’s people. To put an end to the suffering of her people, the beautiful widow Judith used her charms to lure the Assyrian general Holofernes into her tent. There she first plied him with drink and then decapitated him. With the death of this one man, there was renewed hope for the people.
Judith, although speaking about the seventh century oppression of the Jews by the Assyrians, actually addresses the oppression of the Jews by the Syrians under Antiochus IV in the second century before Christ. Judith, whose name means “Jewess,” represents the best of her nation. She embodies the heroism of the solitary Israelite struggling against tyranny. The story of Judith and Holofernes is the feminine counterpart of David and Goliath. Both biblical stories affirm the place of faith in God, fidelity to his will and human courage in God’s plan for his people.
Donatello’s statue turned the biblical narrative of Judith and Holofernes into a sculptural allegory of what was happening in his own day. In the early Renaissance in Florence, the artist was praising the courage of the commune against tyranny. His statue captures the biblical message of virtue over vice, liberty over tyranny and freedom over fear. That message still speaks to us today; and, in the context of the death of bin Laden, it provokes serious soul-searching. When an enemy, an oppressor, a dealer of death, meets his end, what is the proper response?
Undoubtedly, there are many different responses to the death of bin Laden. Some take their cue from Proverbs 11:10 that states “when the wicked perish, there is jubilation.” Others, from Proverbs 24:17.18 that says “Rejoice not when your enemy falls…let not your heart exult, lest the Lord see it and be displeased with you…”
There certainly is a legitimate sense of relief. A man whose murderous plots have harmed and killed so many is no longer able to realize his evil intentions. There is even a sense of justice. Had he been captured alive and brought to justice, would not the outcome have been the same? But should we not go even deeper in our reflection?
Terrorists want full authority to impose on others their views of a monolithic society. The West, however, is committed to the freedom of the individual. The war waged by terrorists rises from a conflict of contrary political ideologies that does not end with the death of a single individual.
When the Church began to preach the gospel of eternal life, the gospel that gives us true freedom, she had to face strong opposition from the political power of the day. Herod Agrippa I (10 B.C.-44 A.D.), grandson of Herod the Great, saw the Christians as a threat to the Pax Romana. He was ruthless in suppressing them. He beheaded the apostle James, the brother of John. He imprisoned Peter. He was intent on the systematic destruction of an ideology that was not his.
Luke tells us that “the angel of the Lord struck him down…and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last” (Acts 12: 23). The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus confirms this (“Jewish Antiquities” 19.343-44). Yet, interesting enough, in Acts, there is no mention of great rejoicing at his death.
Perhaps, Sacred Scripture is opening up for us two ways of viewing the death of bin Laden, the founder of al Qaeda. In as much as his ability to inflict harm and death on innocent people is ended, we can find some comfort and relief. In as much as a man, albeit one grossly mistaken about basic values is dead, we mute our rejoicing. As Vatican spokesperson Rev. Federico Lombardi said, “Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of each and every one of us before God and before man, and hopes and commits himself so that no event be an opportunity for further growth of hatred, but for peace.”
In a word, the death of bin Laden is a moment of grave reflection for us as a nation and as individuals. It is a moment of truth. We will only have freedom and peace when we eradicate the evil of hatred, prejudice and violence from the human heart. Death brings death. Only the death of Jesus brings life. Jesus’ suffering and death is redemptive for all. The Cross of Jesus is the power to transform the human heart. In his death, we rejoice, for we have true freedom to love and to forgive.
Reprinted with permission of The Beacon, newspaper of the Paterson Diocese.