“Stay with us. We’ll be live in Islamabad and Kabul and Washington for reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden. But first let’s have a weather update.”
The BBC news just before 9.00 am on Monday 2nd May. After the weather update – an unusually pleasant one as it happens, given that this day is a bank holiday – images of celebrations in New York’s Times Square fill the TV screen, accompanied on the news ‘tickertape’ by statements like "His death is a momentous achievement." (George W. Bush – who else?).
The scene switches to a hastily scrawled sign on a piece of cardboard brandished aloft by a reveller in New York. "Obama 1 Osama 0" it proclaims, acknowledging the ‘momentous achievement’ and adding to the sense that what is being celebrated here is some kind of sporting victory. The similarity between these scenes and those welcoming a victorious football team or the announcement that London had been awarded the opportunity to host the 2012 Olympic Games, for example, is easy to recognise.
Is there something wrong with a world that can celebrate the assassination of a human being with such undisguised glee? Let’s be clear: this was an individual who encouraged, oversaw and celebrated the indiscriminate murder of thousands of innocent people across the world, and whose removal from the world goes some way towards reducing the sum total of evil that resides upon this troubled planet. But the manner in which it is greeted hints at an acceptance of death that is little better than that propounded by a man who can say “We love death. The US loves life. That is the difference between us two.”
This calls to mind a key moment in the history of my ancestors when they escaped from slavery in Egypt. According to the legend in the book of Exodus, the sea closed in on their Egyptian pursuers, Allowing the Israelites to continue their journey to freedom. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 39a) tells the following: At that time the ministering angels wanted to sing a song of praise to the Holy One, but God restrained them, saying, "My creatures are drowning in the sea and you would sing before Me!"
Perhaps those celebrating in American cities are seeking to prove bin Laden's statement wrong, trying to prove that they are equal to the notorious, and now deceased, Osama bin Laden. In doing so, however, they demonstrate that one of bin Laden’s more enduring achievements is to have levelled the playing field: those who hate Osama bin Laden, it seems, also love death, as long as it involves him and those who support him.
And what of the playing field, the world in which we now engage in this alarming sport of celebrating the death of others? Let us recall that the day after London celebrated the award of the Olympics in 2012 saw more than fifty innocent people die in terrorist attacks on its Underground system. If we continue to regard human life as being no more valuable than a kind of sporting trophy, or points on some grotesque global scoreboard, then we devalue ourselves, our lives, our humanity. Next year sees those Olympic Games that were welcomed with scenes not dissimilar from those currently being played out in New York. Let us hope that this global event will not see the addition of a new range of ‘sports’ such as the ones being celebrated today. Otherwise who knows what news might follow the weather updates next summer…?