The killing of Osama bin Laden just over a year ago triggered celebrations throughout the United States. Americans gathered in their thousands across the country, brandishing flags, leading chants of ‘USA’, and singing the national anthem.

On the face of it, the subsequent celebration might seem reasonable. Bin Laden was directly responsible for an horrific attack on American soil, which resulted in almost 3000 civilian deaths. For over 20 years, he led a movement founded upon vehement anti-American rhetoric, and a general antagonism towards Western society. The reaction to his death might simply be a product of a flourishing American national spirit, a celebration of the triumph of the ideals of liberal democracy over terrorism and intolerance.

Celebrations in Washington, D.C. (Photo: UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg)

For me, this reaction hinted more at an alarming moral coarsening of society. Celebrating the deliberate killing of anyone, regardless of their crimes, seems callous. Justice might have dictated that bin Laden deserved his fate; that people were positively happy at his death is another matter. The ecstatic scenes that played out across America reflect the growing psychological gulf between those we see as sympathetic to the values and goals of Western society, and the threatening, antagonistic ‘other’. Our discourse increasingly treats only those ‘on our side’ as worthy of respect; the ‘other’ is progressively dehumanised, and our capacity for empathy begins to wither. We lose our perspective on what we owe other people, merely in virtue of them being people. Now, we owe these duties only to our people.

It may be argued that this is not just reasonable, but justified, in the case of bin Laden: who could possibly empathise with such a hateful being? But it is this same attitude that was given voice at Abu Ghraib, manifested at Guantanamo Bay, and is emerging anew through the United States’ program of targeted killing. Dostoyevsky claimed that ‘the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.’ The way we treat those we most revile is a crucial moral test. The delight that followed bin Laden’s death hints at how close we are to failing that test.


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