Everyone who hasn't been vacationing on Mars knows about the big news of the past week: Osama bin Laden, head of al Qaeda and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was killed by US Special Forces. Many people all over the world have been celebrating his death. But to me, as a student of A Course in Miracles devoted to helping bring about a more loving world, there is no cause for celebration. For me, the killing of Osama bin Laden is not a time to celebrate, but rather a time to grieve and a time to love.
How exactly it happened will probably never be fully known. We've heard many accounts over the past week, but the story keeps changing. First I read it that it was a "kill" operation with no intent to capture him, then that it wasn't because the US does not purposely kill unarmed combatants. First it was reported that he was shot in the face during a firefight, then the White House said he was unarmed but had weapons within reach. Al-Arabiya television reported that Osama's 12-year old daughter had told Pakistani officials that he had been captured alive and then killed in front of his family, but American officials dispute this. We can all be armchair quarterbacks and debate endlessly what happened and what should have been done, but the fact is that without being there, we cannot know exactly what could have realistically been done in that situation.
That being said, we can certainly say what we would have preferred. Personally, I think the ideal option would have been to capture Osama alive, bring him to trial for crimes against humanity, and give him life imprisonment in a secure but humane environment if convicted. That, in my mind, is what a civilized society does with those who deliberately kill other human beings and need to be prevented from doing such things again. I don't think killing Osama, disposing of his body in an Islamically dubious way, and trumpeting it to the world is likely to be helpful. It just makes him a martyr, and a whole new generation of jihadists will carry out new attacks in his name. I don't think it will make the world any safer.
Thoughtful people have asked me whether, in the Course's view, it is ever right to kill someone. The Course never makes a definitive statement on the matter. But some time ago, I wrote a Q & A on whether the Course advocates total nonviolence, and there I said that while the Course advocates completely nonviolent thought, I don't think it advocates total nonviolence as an absolute behavioral injunction. I think that in any situation, the Holy Spirit will guide us to do whatever is most loving given our current level of development, and this may, in rare instances, include killing someone for the sake of preventing greater harm.
Don't get me wrong: My heart is with Gandhi and his nonviolent activist heirs. But I consider myself a "pragmatic pacifist" — someone committed to nonviolence but who nonetheless is open to rare exceptions. I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's participation in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler, and of military intervention to halt genocides like that in Rwanda. Killing would never be the Holy Spirit's preferred option, but in some extreme situations, given our current human limitations, it may be the most loving option available for all concerned, because it prevents an even worse situation from occurring.
Is this the case with Osama? Was it right to kill him, in order to keep him from carrying out further attacks? My honest answer is that I don't know. People of good faith can disagree on the answer to this question. But what I do know as a student of A Course in Miracles is that the celebration of killing him is contrary to the standard of completely nonviolent thought I referred to above — it reflects a mindset of hatred and vengeance that is totally antithetical to the Course. Yes, I understand the celebration from a human standpoint, especially from the standpoint of those who were most directly hurt by his actions. I don't wish to condemn those who have had these feelings. But I do want to call into question the all-too-human lust for vengeance evident in this celebration, and invite us to consider a better and more loving way to see Osama and his death.
The celebration of Osama's death is a classic example of what the Course calls "attack thoughts," and the Course is clear that the only way to overcome the insanity exemplified by Osama's acts of terrorism is to let such thoughts go completely. The review of Lesson 23, "I can escape from the world I see by giving up attack thoughts," puts it succinctly:
Herein lies salvation, and nowhere else. Without attack thoughts I could not see a world of attack. As forgiveness allows love to return to my awareness, I will see a world of peace and safety and joy. And it is this I choose to see, in place of what I look on now. (W-pI.55.3.2-5)
This passage points to the only way to give up attack thoughts and see a peaceful world: forgiveness. Of course, we are very reluctant to forgive. We tell ourselves that anger is sometimes fully justified, that attack is sometimes the only way to keep ourselves safe. We tell ourselves that in certain situations, the desire for revenge is only natural and even good. (This week I read two New York Times articles by psychologists who said this very thing.) Sure, we want to love, but there are terrible people out there, so sometimes the gloves have to come off. I still vividly remember reading articles right after 9/11 by two newspaper columnists, one conservative and one liberal, who agreed that there was something deeply wrong with anyone who didn't feel rage at the 9/11 attacks. In the world's eyes, this is the only realistic and sane response to acts of terror.
The Course comes along and turns this "realistic and sane" viewpoint completely upside down:
Anger is never justified. Attack has no foundation. It is here escape from fear begins, and will be made complete. Here is the real world given in exchange for dreams of terror….
Pardon is always justified. It has a sure foundation….If pardon were unjustified, you would be asked to sacrifice your rights when you return forgiveness for attack. But you are merely asked to see forgiveness as the natural reaction to distress that rests on error, and thus calls for help. Forgiveness is the only sane response. It keeps your rights from being sacrificed. (T-30.I.1:1-4, 2:1-2, 6-9)
"Forgiveness is the only sane response." Course students are familiar with the metaphysical rationale for why this is so: The world is an illusion, so the seeming perpetrator's attack did not occur in reality and did no real harm. Therefore, the seeming perpetrator is still an innocent Son of God who has every right to the Love of God and his brothers. He simply made an error, so now he needs your help to see his innocence. Offering this help enables you to see your own innocence, and enables you to recognize your own right to the Love of God and your brothers. Forgiveness is thus the only thing that is truly natural, the only thing that is fully justified, the only thing that preserves our eternal right to love, the only sane response.
Of course, most people in the world are not Course students, and may have a lot of trouble understanding and accepting its unusual and challenging metaphysics. So, since I think the message of forgiveness is desperately needed in our world, I've been wondering how it might be conveyed to our non-Course brothers and sisters in a way that makes sense to them. After all, the Course tells us that the miracle "must be expressed in a language that the recipient can understand without fear" (T-2.IV.5:3).
What keeps coming to me is this: I think many people have the intuition that all human beings have worth just by virtue of being human. I think this is the underlying reason why people are appalled by Osama's murderous acts in the first place: Something feels deeply wrong about such wonton disregard for human life. It feels so wrong that, in many people's eyes, the person who does such acts loses his human worth and is transformed into a monster to be destroyed.
Perhaps we can help people expand their intuition about human worth to the point where they realize that all human beings have inherent worth, regardless of what they do. Perhaps through our loving and forgiving thoughts, words, and actions, we can affirm the inherent worth and underlying innocence of all human beings in a way that opens the hearts of those who encounter us. Perhaps we can become living demonstrations of the truth that, whatever we may have to do to address criminal acts in the world of form, we can do it without harboring hatred in our hearts. We can do whatever needs to be done in a spirit of love and recognition of every human being's precious and unalterable worth. Recognizing that worth fully is forgiveness.
This vision has informed my own response to Osama's death and the celebration surrounding it. On the one hand, for me it has been a time to grieve. It saddens me that we are so far from realizing this vision. It saddens me that such hatred and lust for revenge still exist in our world. This event has given me a sobering reminder of just how much further we have to travel before we will fully embody the unconditional Love of God the Course speaks of.
I believe that even if it was right to kill Osama as a way to prevent further killing, it was at best a "necessary evil" that should be mourned, not celebrated. The advice of the following passage from the Tao Te Ching has always struck me as profound. It is a passage I think we would all do well to reflect upon as we consider our emotional response to the killing of Osama and any other act of "justified" violence:
Even the best weapon
is an unhappy tool,
hateful to living things.
So the follower of the Way
stays away from it.
Weapons are unhappy tools,
not chosen by thoughtful people,
to be used only when there is no choice,
and with a calm, still mind,
To enjoy weapons
is to enjoy killing people,
and to enjoy killing people
is to lose your share in the common good.
It is right that the murder of many people
be mourned and lamented.
It is right that a victor in war
be received with funeral ceremonies.
— Tao Te Ching #31
Ursula K. LeGuin's rendition
On the other hand, for me Osama's death and the celebration surrounding it has also been a time to love. I want to do my part to bring this vision closer to realization. I've been confronting my own judgments of the situation. I've been diligently applying the Course to this event so I can open myself to love for everyone involved: for Osama, for his cohorts, for those affected by his violent actions, for those involved in his killing, and for those celebrating his death. I believe deep in my heart that this truly is the only sane response. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said in Strength to Love:
Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Put another way, in the words of Peace Pilgrim:
This is the way of peace:
Overcome evil with good,
falsehood with truth,
and hatred with love.
So, let us love Osama bin Laden. After all, what does anyone have to lose by loving him now? He cannot commit terrorists acts any more, and offering love and forgiveness to his mind has the potential to transform him, and ourselves as well. We have no reason to withhold love from him, and every reason to offer it to him.
In this spirit, I would like to conclude with an exercise. It is a slightly altered version of one of my favorite forgiveness lessons: Lesson 161, "Give me your blessing, holy Son of God." In this beautiful lesson, we are invited to use the vision of Christ to look beyond the apparently sinful acts of a person's body, and see who he really is in truth: a holy Son of God who has the power to forgive our seeming sins.
I've inserted Osama's name at various points in this passage from the lesson, so you can apply its forgiveness practice directly to him. I encourage you to actually do this exercise. Read these words slowly, thinking of Osama as you do so. Let the words sink in, and apply the lesson as instructed. I hope that this will help tranform your perception of Osama and help you catch a glimpse of who he really is: your holy savior. Let this be for you a time to love.
Let us begin:
Hate is specific. There must be a thing to be attacked. An enemy, like Osama bin Laden, must be perceived in such a form he can be touched and seen and heard, and ultimately killed. When your hatred rests on Osama, it calls for death as surely as God's Voice proclaims there is no death. Fear is insatiable, consuming everything its eyes behold, seeing itself in Osama and in everything else, compelled to turn upon itself and to destroy.
If you see Osama as a body, you see him as fear's symbol. And you will attack him, because what you behold is your own fear external to yourself, poised to attack, and howling to unite with you again. Mistake not the intensity of rage your projected fear must spawn. It shrieks in wrath, and claws the air in frantic hope it can reach to you and devour you.
This do the body's eyes behold in Osama: one whom Heaven cherishes, the angels love and God created perfect. This is his reality. And in Christ's vision is his loveliness reflected in a form so holy and so beautiful that you could scarce refrain from kneeling at his feet. Yet you will take his hand instead, for you are like him in the sight that sees him thus. Attack on him is enemy to you, for you will not perceive that in his hands is your salvation. Ask him but for this, and he will give it to you. Ask him not to symbolize your fear. Would you request that love destroy itself? Or would you have it be revealed to you and set you free?
Today we practice looking upon Osama with the eyes of Christ. You will come today nearer Christ's vision. If you are intent on reaching it, you will succeed today. And once you have succeeded, you will not be willing to accept the witnesses your body's eyes call forth. What you will see will sing to you of ancient melodies you will remember. You are not forgot in Heaven. Would you not remember it?
Look upon Osama, and ask salvation of him. See him first as clearly as you can, in that samea form to which you are accustomed. See his face, his hands and feet, his clothing. Watch him smile, and see familiar gestures which he makes so frequently. Then think of this: What you are seeing now conceals from you the sight of one who can forgive you all your sins; whose sacred hands can take away the nails which pierce your own, and lift the crown of thorns which you have placed upon your bleeding head. Ask this of him, that he may set you free:
Give me your blessing, Osama bin Laden, holy Son of God. I would behold you with the eyes of Christ, and see my perfect sinlessness in you.
And He will answer Whom you called upon. For He will hear the Voice for God in you, and answer in your own. Behold him now, whom you have seen as merely flesh and bone, and recognize that Christ has come to you. Today's idea is your safe escape from anger and from fear. Be sure you use it instantly, should you be tempted to again attack Osama and perceive in him the symbol of your fear. And you will see him suddenly transformed from enemy to savior; from the devil into Christ. (Based on W-pI.161.7:-12)