Annette John-Hall: What's the use of cheering death?

Posted: May 03, 2011

Editors Note: An erroneous Martin Luther King quote has been corrected in this column.

When I told my husband what I was planning to write, he offered a furrowed-brow warning.

"You may not want to go there."

Too late, honey.

See, while I may feel uneasy writing this, it's still not as bad as the uneasiness I felt hearing fans at the Phillies game break into a chant of "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" after news broke of Osama bin Laden's killing the other night.

Our brave soldiers had taken down an elusive enemy - finally. They had won.

But somehow, the red-meat celebration that erupted at the game, outside the White House, and at Ground Zero left me feeling troubled.

Cheering death? Really?

Don't get me wrong. I don't for a second feel morally superior to those who reacted with spontaneous joy after President Obama's announcement late Sunday.

None of us can say how we would have reacted had one of our loved ones been among the nearly 3,000 killed in the 9/11 attacks, or among the thousands of servicemen and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as a result of those attacks.

I can only say how I felt in my gut. I am as patriotic as the next person, but I simply can't celebrate death, even if it's the demise of a despot who orchestrated the deaths of so many innocent people.

As Martin Luther King said in his "Love Your Enemies" sermon: "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."

End of an era

Not that I blame the Phillies fans. In trying to explain, the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, says their spontaneous outbursts probably weren't "so much celebrating the murder of a person as much as it was celebrating the end of an era that was so terrifying to people. . . . People had taken it as a given that [bin Laden] would never be caught. It was a relief to people."

Some people, maybe. But not Paul Arpaia, whose cousin Kathy Mazza, a Port Authority police officer, perished at the World Trade Center.

"I'm glad I didn't see it," Arpaia says of the fans' reaction at Citizens Bank Park. "It would have crushed me."

Not because their reaction was necessarily inappropriate, says Arpaia, a history professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, but because he can't help but wonder whether the crowd was cheering for the memories of those lost or for a singular act of revenge.

"Killing somebody because they killed one of my loved ones is not going to put the genie back in the bottle," Arpaia says. "Do we want to be in this constant tit-for-tat? . . . It leaves me feeling hollow."

Larger than life

You have to admit the military mission that took out bin Laden was a Jack Bauer kind of move - the way American special forces swooped in on his Pakistan compound in the dead of night, shot him twice in the head, and buried his body at sea.

Which eliminated bin Laden's right to a fair trial, but I won't go there.

So the boogeyman is dead. Now what?

"We must take the opportunity to redouble our efforts. . . . We will continue to take the fight to al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Monday.

Well, sounds like bin Laden's death won't bring our troops home from Afghanistan any time soon. Troubling, since bin Laden was the reason we went there in the first place.

And while bin Laden - who intelligence reports say had acted more as a figurehead than a mastermind in recent years - may be dead, global terrorism is still alive and well.

"There's no doubt," President Obama said, "that al-Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us."

OK, so what exactly are we celebrating again?

That's the question Todd Bernstein - president of Global Citizen, a Philadelphia organization dedicated to community service, and probably one of the biggest Phillies fans I know - asked as we heard fans chant while watching the Phillies lose to the Mets in 14 innings.

The question we should be asking ourselves is "how can we turn our words into action that results in understanding," Bernstein says, "rather than celebrating with a jingoistic cheer that reduces bin Laden's death to nothing more than, 'We're great, you suck,


forget you.' "


Contact me at 215-85-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com. Read the blinq blog at www.philly.com/blinq. Follow me on Twitter @Annettejh

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