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One of the most depressing aspects of the recent killing of Osama bin Laden is the manner in which it seems to have warped moral judgments. Reading through the ‘Newsweek’ account of what had happened, and the wider dimensions of the incident, I came across the following claim by Elie Wiesel, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his part in bringing those responsible for the Holocaust to justice.  Wiesel notes the celebrations that attended the killing of bin Laden and that normally he ‘would respond to such scenes with deep apprehension. The execution of a human being – any human being – should never be an event to be celebrated.’  But he believes that this death was different. Wiesel claims that bin Laden’s crimes were so many, that By his actions, he gave up any right to human compassion.’

I found this worrying. I do not disagree with Wiesel with regard to there being no need to regret bin Laden’s death. But I do not think compassion is something to which people have a right. I believe compassion is a duty we owe ourselves, and that we should never cease to feel compassion for all sentient beings. Such compassion should not take away from the understanding that the death of one individual or another may be necessary so as to prevent further suffering. But inflicting death as a matter of justice or self-defence should never harden us to the need for compassion for our fellow human beings, and indeed for all forms of life.

And I fear that Wiesel went further, in justifying other deaths, in a manner that suggested that a determination to destroy what has harmed us can have even more dangerous consequences for ourselves. He wrote that bin Laden ‘was not the only one put at risk by the American operation. There were others. Among them, children. And children are never guilty. Still, it was bin Laden himself who placed them in harm’s way’.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

May 2011
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