Friday, May 27, 2011

Saints and Sinners, Death and Redemption: Bin Laden and Pope John Paul II

Within the span of a day on May 1, 2011, the world was abuzz with news of the Osama Bin Laden's death and the beatification of Pope John Paul II. There was also the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton just 3 days prior, but let's reserve that for another post. For now, let's talk about these two people in history - seemingly occupying opposite ends of the good/bad spectrum, and how they have both changed the world.

Osama Bin Laden
Osama Bin Laden
Osama Bin Laden is credited for the 1998 United States Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. He has claimed to have masterminded the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center which killed nearly 3,000 civilians. His attacks were carried out with the help of Al Qaeda, an extremist group he had helped found and financed. Because of him, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to annihilate the Al Qaeda and to smoke out Osama Bin Laden. The U.S., with its then president George W. Bush, led the charge and for 10 years failed to capture its greatest nemesis, until in May 1, 2011, the leadership of U.S. President Barack Obama finally found Bin Laden and skillfully terminated him in a military operation. As soon as the CNN confirmed news of his death with the national address made by President Barack Obama, hundreds of Americans flocked infront of the White House gates in Washington and at Ground Zero in New York, in a spontaneous expression of their elation at "having brought Osama Bin Laden to justice." There was obvious merry-making and a vigorous waving of the American flag. Nationalistic fervor was at a high.
Tapestry of Blessed John Paul II
Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II has for years been the hero of the Catholic world, for being an inspiring leader of the Catholic faith for 26 years, and for being a charismatic pontiff who helped improve the church's relations with Judaism, Islam, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Communion. Considered as among the most influential leaders of the 20th century, he showed strength, courage and perseverance when he continued to give hope to many who look up to him for spiritual guidance and blessing - this despite suffering from Parkinson's disease during his last years. He visited the Philippines in 1981 and in 1995, showing his great favor for the country - the largest and only Catholic country in Asia. As such when he died in April 2, 2005, the world mourned his loss - Catholics and non-Catholics alike, world leaders and the common folk alike - for his effect upon the world was so great, his absence left a palpable emptiness. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, could only barely fill his shoes. Last May 1, 2011, Pope John Paul II was beatified - one more step to his eventual sainthood, a process that was made quick by Pope Benedict XVI. Nobody could contest Blessed John Paul II's qualification as a saint - he was that much loved, he was that much revered.
Stark Differences
The differences in the two scenes could not have been more vast - on the one hand a celebration of a death - that of a known mass murderer; on the other, the mourning of a loss - of a known godly man, a fellow considered worthy of being a saint. It seemed easy to understand why one must celebrate the death of someone like Bin Laden, and mourn that of someone like Blessed John Paul II.
But to me, at least, the image of a group of people throwing fists up in the air and howling in joy at the bloody extermination of a human being, is unsettling. It reminded me of a similar scene 10 years ago, of a group of Islamic extremists, supporters of Bin Laden, who themselves were raising their fists and firearms in the air and showing obvious joy at the death of thousands after the crash of the World Trade Center. Both images, from 2001 and from 2011, show the same insensitivity - to life, to human life, to that very thing that allows us license to call ourselves human.

To think that the 2001 experience should have taught us differently, that of greater respect for the preciousness of human life after having lost so many loved ones at another man's own display of insensitivity, anger and hate. Ten years later we exhibit that we too have not gotten it - that life cannot be made to pay for life, that one life however foul or evil does not deserve the injustice of death nor the heartlessness of celebration. In a statement attributed to Bin Laden, he said that it was destruction by the U.S. of towers in Lebanon in 1982 that gave him the idea to strike the same kind of terror to America: by destroying the Twin Towers.
Apparently we have not made much progress from the archaic "eye for an eye" notion of justice. And we are no different, it seems, from the terrorist we have vilified.
In February 5, 1999, at the Quezon City jail in the Philippines, at the precise moment that Leo Echagaray was served the death penalty by lethal injection - I had a profound realization. I was there on a research, and was a witness to the effect of the Echegaray's death on alleged criminals. Echagaray holds the distinction of being the first Filipino to be served the death penalty after it was revived in the Philippines. Echegaray was executed somewhere else then, but there in the Quezon City jail were his fellow inmates, who all felt the heaviness of the death of one of their own. Other than that, that was it! At the very moment of Leo Echagaray's death, I saw how claiming someone's life - be it in the name of justice or for whatever depth of evil the sinner has caused - does not truly achieve anything.

The world goes on - life went on in that city jail - just as life now continues to run its course after Bin Laden's demise.
The meting out of death for the supposed lofty cause of justice has sadly not given us real redemption - it only perpetuates injustice, it does make us better saints, it does not impart to us greater wisdom, it only inspires greater sin.

Book Recommendations:
The Killing of Osama Bin Laden: How the Mission to Hunt Down a Terrorist Mastermind was Accomplished
Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden
Witness to Hope : The Biography of Pope John Paul II
Crossing the Threshold of Hope

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