Reflections on the Death of Osama bin Laden

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My wife woke me just as I had drifted off to sleep.

“They got bin Laden!” she repeated several times. Finally I heard what she was saying, though I was not yet fully cognizant of the impact of her words.

“The intelligence people got him?” I asked.

“No, Navy Seals got him in a raid in Pakistan!”

That response startled me into a wide-awake unreality and disbelief. Listening to the news unfolding brought me back in memory to the Tactical Operation Centers and Senior Command Operation Centers where I have worked, off-limits to all but authorized command and staff. To enter requires identification badge upon identification badge that pile up like slats on a venetian blind.

I could visualize the Intelligence Director and staff in northern Virginia; the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the “tank” in the Pentagon; the CENTCOM commander in his command and control bunker; the Commander of Special Operations Command hunkered down on his base in Florida; and especially the NATO headquarters spinning up to monitor what the White House Operations Center was watching and saying about an American secret operation in a NATO operational area.

Behind the Scenes

If you have never seen an Operation Center, you would be amazed if you walked into one. The variety of communications equipment and monitoring devices feed information from several locations across the globe and all the headquarters involved in the operation to the senior officer in charge of Operations. Before him is a panel of buttons and switches used to manage the flow of information to ensure the operation gets tracked from as many angles as possible.

The very large television screens in the front of the room are divided into different quadrants for all the different agencies online. The tension in the room rises and falls as one phase of the operation finishes and a new phase begins. If something unplanned happens or if part of an operational phase fails, the atmosphere becomes heavy with concern, and the operations staff looks to the backup plans and equipment.

The more important and difficult the operation, the more closely it is monitored. Information gets checked and crosschecked. Adrenalin rushes through the body, every part alive and connected to the task of monitoring the operation’s progress.

There is also the frustration of being an observer and not really part of the action. When something goes wrong, helplessness and frustration accompany the desire to take action to fix the problem. The recent pictures from the White House Operation Center capture the intense roller coaster turns of mood as the operation phases change.

  President Obama and his National Security Team made the hard decision to send Special Operating Forces on a daring and dangerous mission. These forces are the most capable and professional men and women in the U.S. military. They had enough information from the Intelligence Operators to practice on a mockup of the compound where bin Laden was living.

The skills and abilities of these Special Operators were not the major concern the night of May 2. The largest concerns were the non-notification of the Pakistani government, the close proximity of bin Laden’s house to a major Pakistani military school (similar to West Point), and the large number of retired military living in the area. Any of those non-players suddenly interfering could have changed the outcome of the operation from success to a nightmarish failure.

Personal Reaction

My personal reaction to the killing of Osama bin Laden was to be emotionally thrust into a Cuisinart.

I was in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001. Forty-three people I knew died in the Pentagon that day. People representing more than 90 nations were killed in the attacks on New York City’s Twin Towers. A wave of patriotism swept across the country.

The international community was emotionally a kindred spirit, supporting our outrage at what happened to those symbols of military and economic power. President Bush became a wartime president out of necessity, positioned to make changes that involved us in two major conflicts at the same time.

While pledging to the world to get Osama bin Laden, the Bush administration squandered a real opportunity when bin Laden escaped over Tora Bora. Our resources and attention had moved from Afghanistan to Iraq. I was so disappointed by the wasted opportunity to end the symbol of Al Qaida’s power by capturing their leader then and there.

My personal sorrow and my anger at watching some members of the Islamic community dancing in the streets and cheering the death of so many innocents on 9-11 once again churned within me. Only this time I saw my fellow citizens dancing in the streets, celebrating bin Laden’s death. It bothered me terribly. The mental and emotional scars from my battles with PTSD depressed me; I had some terrifying dreams and wanted only to be alone. I lashed out at some people who had hurt me, and I reached for solace and support from some I respected and loved deeply. As the Cuisinart spun my emotions out of control, I hurt many people I cherish as family and friends.

I did not want to cheer the death of an evil man, no more than I wanted to cheer the death and dehumanization of the enemy in Vietnam. Yet, as a Christian, how can you love someone so evil and ruthless, someone who conceived and planned some of the most diabolical acts of terror?

Bin Laden was cunning in picking targets with high propaganda value, and he exploited that advantage to the maximum. Was I glad he was dead? No. Relieved? Yes. I was glad the mission was a success. The professional manner of the military made me proud to know some of these Special Operation Forces.

But I was also disturbed that bin Laden was dead and that our Commander in Chief’s guidance was to “kill or capture.” I wonder if anyone on the task force even entertained the thought of capture. I was also saddened that some women and children were killed and wounded in the operation. Civilian deaths from “collateral damage” are no better than civilian deaths from “ethnic cleansing.”

So I do not celebrate bin Laden’s death, nor do I mourn it. I do not say “Justice was served,” because we Americans violated international law and flaunted our military technological superiority at the expense of another sovereign nation, our partner, Pakistan.

The Old Testament prophets and the psalmists warned Israel to “take no pleasure in the strength of a horse.” The horse was the M1A1 tank of the ancient military. Chariots and charioteers gave land-war fighters a tremendous battlefield advantage.

Today we take too much pride in our armed forces and spend too much money on defense. And we have established a pattern over the past few years of using the military option as our first choice of political power, rather than as a last resort. 

We Christians should be in the lead criticizing the militarism of both the United States and Canada. We should be asking what place the military occupies in our national defense policies. What about the other instruments of power: diplomacy, economics, international coalitions? We place the military at the apex of our planning in natural disasters and domestic or civil violence. Is that a proper role for the military? Can we send soldiers trained both to kill people and break things into New Orleans or another flooded or tornado-destroyed city and ask them to provide security like the police do? We use the military for every conceivable emergency—even for things the military is not trained and equipped to do.

Bin Laden was an enemy of my country—should I love him? What kind of question is that? I would suggest that it is a “Christ question.” In obedience to his understanding of his faith, bin Laden not only persecuted people of another faith but murdered them at will. Our Savior was persecuted, beaten, and killed by religionists who were wrong-believing Jews and Romans. But he also said this: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:44-45).

One of my reactions to the death of bin Laden is the realization that I did not pray for him enough. In Vietnam I prayed every day, at every service I conducted, “Lord, in the middle of these killing fields, help us to love our enemies and not dehumanize them so it is easier for us to kill them.”

Some soldiers and commanders did not like those words and objected to my prayers. I reminded them that I was not praying to them but for them. Their moral lives were in danger, and I wanted God to shield them from what Henry Stob called “moral suicide.”

Do I love bin Laden? I confess to Jesus that I do not have the mind of my Savior.

I’m thankful that in dealing with bin Laden’s body we had people trained in Islamic rituals for the dead. To show respect in burial is something not always found in the conduct of military operations. I hope we will celebrate our respectful care of his remains. I do not believe that someone can choose to be a martyr, which is folly. So I am glad he belongs to the deep and not to a landed shrine.

Did we avenge all those who died on 9-11 and in our embassies in Africa? I do not know. Certainly bin Laden has experienced what it is like to fall into the hands of an angry, righteous God. In that I take comfort.

But when my heart leans toward vengeance, my heavenly Father tells me that vengeance belongs to him alone and he will repay. That leads me to my final thoughts about bin Laden’s death.

Is bin Laden burning in hell? Does that thought give me any comfort? No, absolutely no comfort comes with that thought. I have turned bin Laden over to my heavenly Father, with the prayer that God will do for him what God has done for me.

When I was my Father’s enemy, God sent Jesus, his only Son, to die for me. I am willing to leave bin Laden there with my Father, the Savior-Judge. As soon as I begin to think bin Laden was a worse sinner than I am, I stand condemned by Adam’s sin. I set myself up as something I am not. I keep saying to the apostle Paul, “Move over. There must be room for more than one on the dais for the ‘Chief of Sinners.’”

Let’s Pray

Let me conclude with a plea for you to join me in prayer and action for a few very important things:

  • Keep us from becoming nations of assassins. The press is already trying to identify the next U.S. target for assassination. If that is our choice of tactic, do not be surprised if our leaders become targets for other nations. Moreover, assassination violates international law, and we pride ourselves as nations living under the rule of law.
  • Stop the use of extraordinary methods of interrogation—torture—to get information. I dread what treatment our soldiers will receive from our next enemies, since we have violated the Geneva Accords with impunity. If we do not respect the humane treatment of prisoners, we give others license to beat, rape, humiliate, and brutalize our men and women if and when they are taken captive. What an awful legacy for the next generation of those in the Profession of Arms who will be protecting our freedom.
  • Help us to build at least a minimally just society in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. If we have been fighting to bring justice and peace to those countries, we have failed. As those who serve the King of Peace, we Christians should bring them the tools of reconciliation and restoration. I am certain King Jesus would be happy to lead the way.

The Cuisinart in my life has stilled, but I need to reconcile with some wonderful people I’ve hurt while being ground up from my experiences of war and betrayal. Please ask God to bless my efforts with the healing power of his balm. May the world know that Jesus Christ is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and that he has won the battle and the victory using means we would never have thought of: loving us enough to send his own Son so we can enter his Shalom.

About the Author

Chaplain (Col.) Herman Keizer Jr., former director of Chaplaincy Ministries for the Christian Reformed Church, spent 34 years as a chaplain in the U.S. Army, with 15 years in the Pentagon and two years at the State Department. His career included assignments as executive director of the Armed Forces Chaplains Board and as command chaplain for the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany. He is retired as director of Chaplaincy Ministries and now works on many projects like Healing Children of Conflict, Selective Conscientious Objection legislation, and Moral Injury in War.

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