Is Celebrating Death Appropriate?
MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, my thoughts on what is news, and what is just nonsense masquerading as news. That's my weekly commentary, Can I Just Tell You? That will be in just a few minutes.
But, first, after President Obama announced last night that Osama bin Laden had been killed, the news was met with celebrations from crowds gathering spontaneously at Ground Zero in New York and in front of the White House in Washington, D.C.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: USA, USA, USA, USA, USA, USA, USA.
MARTIN: But is cheering bin Laden's death the right thing to do? A prominent Jewish leader says absolutely not. He is Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. He is the leader of the Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. He's with us from time to time to talk about Jewish faith practices and culture. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio once again. Welcome back. Thank you for joining us.
Rabbi SHMUEL HERZFELD: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: Also with us is Arsalan Iftikhar. He's also a regular TELL ME MORE contributor, the founder of TheMuslimGuy.com and a managing editor of The Crescent Post. He wrote a piece for CNN.com saying it's absolutely OK to celebrate bin Laden's death.
Thank you so much for joining us once again.
ARSALAN IFTIKHAR: I'm glad to be here, Michel.
MARTIN: Rabbi, you sent a message to your congregation earlier today where you talk about the fact that you do not think it is appropriate to publicly celebrate even the destruction of someone who caused so much suffering. Tell us a little bit more about why not, particularly from a faith perspective.
HERZFELD: Well, I think from a faith perspective, there's a subtle difference between rejoicing and between being grateful. Rejoicing is inappropriate, and being grateful is appropriate. The Proverbs state: Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and don't let your heart be glad when he stumbles. So we shouldn't be celebrating, certainly not publicly, at this time. We should be grateful to the Navy SEALs, grateful to the people who worked on this operation, grateful to God that an imminent threat to our lives has been removed.
But there's a difference between that and celebrating and chanting USA in the streets. I remember when Saddam Hussein's statue fell down in the streets of Baghdad and one of my rabbis reminded me of this verse from Proverbs. And thinking back on that, there was so much death that came after that, so much sadness. So this is not necessarily a cause for celebration. In fact, Jewish tradition counsels that that's inappropriate.
MARTIN: You say as the rabbinic teaching goes, as the children of Israel were crossing the sea and the army of Pharaoh was drowning, God rebuked the angels for showing excessive joy, and the liturgy even reflects that by limiting the Psalms of joy that we recite to commemorate the event.
You also make the point that - you say that even when an enemy falls, this does not signal an end to our troubles. But you say you also have to acknowledge that the destruction of the enemy does not necessarily arise from our own merits. We are perhaps not worthy of the good fortune that we've received, and thus gratitude for deliverance is appropriate, but not celebration. What would be a more appropriate response, in your view?
HERZFELD: I think - just like I heard on your show a few minutes ago - remembering that this man caused so much damage. So this is a very painful and difficult day for a lot of people out there, because it's reminding us of loved ones who are not here. It's reminding us of all the evil that he's caused. So a more appropriate response is for inner reflection, reaching out to people who you know are suffering today, and trying to protect ourselves to make sure that more evil doesn't exist and doesn't damage us. We know that bin Laden is gone, but at the same time, the evil that he created is still very much in our world. And that's what we need to be working against.
MARTIN: Arsalan, what about you? You said that it's actually OK to celebrate, that this is a person who caused tremendous suffering. And the way you put it is that even Muslims who - have cause to celebrate today. Tell us a little bit more about your views of this.
IFTIKHAR: Well, I think the American author Mark Twain said it best when he said that: I have never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure. You know, I think instead of rejoicing, I think the appropriate word to use would be relief. You know, obviously, we saw the ungodly destruction and carnage that this man, Osama bin Laden, has caused to the world and to humanity. But for global Muslims, we also saw a hijacking of our religion that we haven't seen in nearly two millennia of Islamic history.
And so, you know, from Muslims that I've heard from from all around the world since last night, there has been a great relief in that, you know, here is somebody who was purporting to speak in the name of our religion and who had made it clear - abundantly clear many times that he did not have any desire to be taken alive, who was finally - who finally met the same mortal fate that we will all face in death. And I think that hopefully, this will - this watershed event will help advance our human conversation more.
You know, I think that - I agree with the rabbi that, you know, we shouldn't be, you know, dancing the Macarena or anything, here. But I do think that there is a great deal of relief and gratefulness from the entire world community, but also especially from Muslims because, you know, he not only attacked Muslims on a regular basis, but he also attacked the duality of our faith, which is something that we hold very dear to our hearts.
MARTIN: The Council of American Islamic Relations released this - you formerly worked - you don't work there anymore, but released a statement last night after this news broke. I'm going to read their message saying: We join our fellow citizens in welcoming the announcement that Osama bin Laden has been eliminated as a threat to our nation and the world through the actions of American military personnel. As we have stated repeatedly since the 9/11 terror attacks, bin Laden never represented Muslims or Islam.
In fact, in addition to the killing of thousands of Americans, he and al-Qaida caused the deaths of countless Muslims worldwide. We also reiterate President Obama's clear statement tonight, that the United States is not at war with Islam. So, but, Arsalan, I do have to press the question once again. Is the celebration, is that, you know, appropriate? And I call upon you not because you're a faith leader, but because you are a civil rights lawyer.
MARTIN: And one of your governing principles is due process. I don't think there's any doubt that Osama bin Laden was guilty of the crimes that are attributed to him, but I think the question some have, would it had been better from the standpoint of, kind of the world...
MARTIN: ...to force him to be held to account in, for example, a forum such as the Nuremberg trial?
IFTIKHAR: Oh, absolutely. And I don't think that there's any international lawyer in the world who would not prefer to have seen Osama captured and tried at the International Criminal Court at The Hague. But as I mentioned before, you know, he has made abundantly clear and has even put - had put mechanisms into place that if his capture were imminent that, you know, even some of his cronies were actually demanded to kill him, you know, because of the martyr syndrome that he sought to acquire.
Another thing that's important to remember, Michel, according to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point Academy, from 2002 to 2008, 85 to 98 percent of al-Qaida's victims worldwide were Muslims. And so, you know, there is a great deal of - over the years, there's become a great deal of antipathy. You know, here is somebody who is purporting to speak in the name of a religion, but yet most of their victims are of that same religion as their co-religionists.
And so, again, it's not about celebrating. It is about being relieved that this man's, you know, global madness has come to an end.
MARTIN: Do you believe that justice has been served, as the president said last night?
IFTIKHAR: You know, I think that justice has been served as well as it could have been in the case of Osama bin Laden. I do not believe - you know, they acted on actionable intelligence, you know, going to Abbottabad, Pakistan to find him. I personally don't believe that he could've ever been taken alive. I think that he had his own mechanisms in place to make sure that that wouldn't happen.
You know, as the rabbi said and as we all know, you know, the stain of extremism, you know, is not completely washed away forever, but we do have to admit that the snake's head of al-Qaida has been cut off.
MARTIN: Are you worried at all that he has now achieved the martyrdom which is critical to his apocalyptic vision for himself, and it adds to his cult status?
IFTIKHAR: No. I think that, you know...
MARTIN: Cult leader status, I should say.
Right, the cult of personality, you know, status will remain to those who want it to remain, regardless of how he dies. You know, I think what it does for a lot of the world is it gives an element of closure. You know, we didn't know that if - we didn't know if we were ever going to capture him, whether he was going to die natural causes, in a cave in Tora Bora somewhere, whether we would never know if he would die, and, you know, thus remain this bogeyman ghost. But, you know, now that we have shown that he is a mere mortal human being who is now deceased and passed on, I think that it will give a little bit of closure to the global community.
If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden. We're focusing on the public celebrations that seem to have broken out spontaneously, particularly in New York and Washington, D.C., which were the site of the direct attacks by al-Qaida in 9/11.
We're speaking with civil rights attorney Arsalan Iftikhar. He's a regular contributor to this program. He's also the managing editor of the Crescent Post. Also with us is Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. He's also a regular contributor to this program, addressing matters of faith.
So Rabbi, are you concerned at all that celebrations - I'm just interested in your reaction when you saw the celebrations break out.
HERZFELD: Well, I also got a couple of texts from my friends to come join me down at the White House at midnight. And I was thinking, no. That's just not the Jewish tradition. We are relieved that there's a threat to us that's been removed. But at the end of the day, we also have to feel, when we see somebody who's evil was removed from the world, at the same time that we're relieved and that we're grateful that this presence is not in our lives anymore, we also have to feel a great sense of humility.
First of all, the very fact that we weren't one of his victims, you know, it's not a time for us to rejoice, but to be grateful and appreciative of that fact. And at the same time, there is this idea in the Jewish tradition that when the angel of death is lurking out there in the world, suddenly everybody is being analyzed and being judged, and it's a time for ourselves to make sure that we have what to say when we come to our maker.
MARTIN: May I press you on this question, though? I mean, here is a man who, either by his own hand, by his own planning, by his inspiration, by his direct instruction, caused so many innocents to suffer - children, you know, on a school trip, you know, mothers with children in their wombs. You know, fathers, people who - you know, is it so wrong to want to say that, you know, justice has been done and to feel a sense of happiness about that?
HERZFELD: Michel, at the same - you know, I'd like to draw a historical comparison without equating the two events. But at the same time that Osama bin Laden was being killed, in our synagogue, we were gathering because it was Holocaust Memorial Day. And we were studying the writings of the rabbi who led the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto. And what I pointed out to our congregation at the time was the Nazi ideology is destroyed. But this man who, at that time, while he was being beaten and killed by the Nazis, his writing and his teachings live on. So that's the reaction we have to have. And when there's an evil person in the world, one thing we have to do is make sure that he doesn't physically destroy us. But then we have to make sure that he doesn't ideologically destroy us, as well, and our spirit and our teachings will live on. And we cannot allow what he represented to take over us.
So reacting in a way of chanting and celebrating in a gross manner is vulgar, and it's not what we were created to do as human beings. Yes, we should be relieved and we should be grateful, but we can't act in a barbarian fashion.
MARTIN: Arsalan, what about the rabbi's point that the celebration - however natural and instinctual - perhaps cheapens us as a people?
IFTIKHAR: Well, I completely agree. I mean, again, you know, I do have to make the distinction that I do not, you know, condone the, you know, boisterous celebrations, you know, that we've seen as though, you know, the United States has won the World Cup or something. Again, you know, I think we agree on the fact that, you know, there is a great deal of relief, you know, that is being felt.
And I think that some people are manifesting that relief in these jubilant manners. And although I can understand it, I did not partake in it. I will not partake in it. You know, for me, it was a much more reflective, you know, experience and exercise as a Muslim, as someone who has spent his entire life, you know, trying to help, you know, promote and show the true teachings of Islam and Muslims.
You know, for somebody like Osama bin Laden, who has been a cult of personality and sadly has tragically represented, you know, Islam to many non-Muslims, you know, we did feel a lot of relief at his passing.
MARTIN: Rabbi, very briefly: How would you wish us to remember this day?
HERZFELD: Well, I think it's a day - one of the days where one of our threats has been removed. So I recommend people of faith to look within themselves and read Psalms, and people of all faiths and non-faiths to contact friends who they know are so destroyed and so distraught by what happened that day or other days and reach out to them and draw closer.
MARTIN: Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld is the leader of Ohev Sholom, the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C. He's one of our regular voices and addresses matters of faith and spirituality with us. Civil rights lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar is the founder of themuslimguy.com, the managing editor of the Crescent Post, also a regular contributor on this program. They both joined us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Gentleman, I thank you both so much.
HERZFELD: Thank you, Michel.
IFTIKHAR: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.