Chaplains ponder ethics of celebrating bin Laden's death
By PATRICK DICKSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 4, 2011
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Army Chaplain (Maj.) Mitchel Tulloss was pondering whether it was acceptable, from a theological standpoint, for the soldiers he counsels in Afghanistan to rejoice over the killing of Osama bin Laden when he abruptly excused himself from a telephone interview. He had to check on noises he thought were incoming fire.
Tulloss is deployed to Forward Operating Base Shank in Logar province, a place where violent reality has a way of clarifying philosophical shades of gray.
“I would tell the soldiers that it’s all right to feel OK about [the death of bin Laden],” Tulloss said when he came back on the line.
“I know the feeling around here is one of celebration.”
When the news of bin Laden’s death broke on Sunday night in America, spontaneous public celebrations erupted in Washington, New York and elsewhere.
Servicemembers in the war zones and elsewhere around the globe seemed a bit more circumspect — wondering about the implications for the war, but also clearly elated.
Finding joy in the killing of the plotter of 9/11 and numerous other attacks against Americans around the world might seem natural. But is it OK from a moral perspective to take pleasure in the death of a human being? And what are military chaplains advising soldiers about this delicate topic?
Navy Chaplain (Cmdr.) Philip J. Pelikan, an Eastern Orthodox priest who spent a year with Marines in Helmand province, Afghanistan, from 2009-2010, said he understood the instinct to celebrate, but hoped to appeal to servicemembers’ better selves.
“When you’ve been in the morgue and seen our guys, the temptation to rejoice when the bad guys get it is a strong one,” he said. “I think we have to fight those tendencies to celebrate or rejoice in the death of anyone.”
When he heard bin Laden had been killed, Pelikan said he felt that the sacrifices of the troops he served with had been honored. Killing bin Laden brought justice for the 3,000 killed on 9/11 and in the wars that followed, Pelikan said at his office in Naples, Italy.
“He was an enemy of peace,” Pelikan said of bin Laden. “He was an enemy of innocence. He was an enemy of all civilized human beings.”
And though he said he understood the public celebrations back home in America, it made him uncomfortable.
“It’s a little disturbing to me,” Pelikan said, adding a quote from the book of Ezekiel: “‘As surely as I live,’ declares the Sovereign Lord, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked.’ ”
The Roman Catholic Church also urged restraint.
“Faced with the death of a man,” a church spokesman in Rome said, “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 further growth of hatred, but of peace.”
Robert Frazier, a doctor of philosophy at Christ Church college at Oxford University in England, was careful to make the distinction between welcoming a death and celebrating it.
“Celebrating death isn’t a good thing,” Frazier said. “It makes us coarse. So it’s that — even when it’s necessary to take a life, that shouldn’t please us; it shows a willingness to be too casual with life, with taking life.
“But we recognize that sometimes people are better off dead,” Frazier added. “Is the world a better place if somebody is dead? [Bin Laden’s death] might be a good thing.”
Col. John Powers, the U.S. Army Japan chaplain based at Camp Zama, said he’s been advising servicemembers that there is a difference between celebrating the death of an enemy in combat and recognizing success in battle.
He’s been sharing the Old Testament verse — Proverbs 24:17 — “Do not gloat when your enemy falls. When he stumbles do not let your heart rejoice.”
“We are grateful that our efforts in fighting terrorism are not in vain,” Powers said, “and we are proud of the success that came our way. But we need to be careful not to be disrespectful.”
Stars and Stripes attempted to speak with other chaplains in the Pacific, but was told in one instance, by 18th Wing Public Affairs spokesman James Bowman, that all queries needed to go to the White House.
Pelikan said people who rejoice in anyone’s death are usually unfamiliar with its horror, and, should the U.S. release photos of bin Laden’s corpse — an issue still being discussed at the White House — it might dampen the celebrating.
“When (people) don’t know the horror of war, they romanticize,” he said. “When you keep people from what a man looks like when he is gunned down … you lose the sense of (solemnity), that this was a human life violently taken.
“When you see that, it immediately affects you,” he said. “It mitigates the temptation to go, ‘YEAH!’ ”
But in Tulloss’ view, bin Laden’s death should be seen as a matter of justice.
“If you were to go down the street and you see a police officer standing between your family and a robber, and two of your family are already dead, and he killed the robber, would you be glad if the officer took him out?” Tulloss said. “I would! Wouldn’t bother me one bit if he didn’t go to trial.”
Stars and Stripes reporters Geoff Ziezulewicz, Seth Robson and Nancy Montgomery contributed to this report.