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Associated Press/Photo by Jacquelyn Martin

Debating the death

Terrorism | Did we want Osama bin Laden dead or alive?

In December 2001, former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan ended a column in The Wall Street Journal this way:

"I will leave you with a happy thought. The other day into my imagination popped a scene that I dearly hope will happen. I imagined that I was walking along Fulton Street in Brooklyn. It was a pretty afternoon, just pre-dusk, and the street was full of shoppers. And suddenly a woman came running from The Wiz, and she shouted to no one, to everyone, 'They found Osama! They caught bin Laden!' And the street stopped stock still and then someone cheered and then we all cheered, and we went into The Wiz and watched the reporters telling the story on all the big TV monitors, row after row of them. And strangers talked to strangers and people who hadn't wept since Sept. 11 found themselves with tears in their eyes, and it was an unforgettable moment in American history.

"Actually I shared this scene with my table at the dinner party earlier in the week.

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"'Dead or alive?' someone asked. I shook my head. 'The way you imagined it, is Osama dead or alive?'

"I said I didn't know and didn't care. A man said I should care, it's bad if he's alive, that means crazy hostage things and suicide bomber nuts. Someone else said, 'I feel sure that when they get him if they get him it will be an unknown CIA agent who gets him, and we'll never know his name.' He will be invited to the White House and shake the president's hand and be assigned somewhere far away, and it will be one of the great secrets of all time. He will be The Man Who Got Osama. And we won't even know his name.

"I thought, 'Oh no, we must know his name and dedicate things to him like mountains and libraries.' I said we have to know and she said no, if he is known he will be in danger, and so will his family: 'the Jihad never forgets.'

"Well, we'll see how it goes."

In the 24 hours after Osama bin Laden's May 1 death, Americans took not to TV monitors but to their laptops to debate the wisdom-and morality-of President Barack Obama's shoot-to-kill order. Some wanted him alive, or his body, as proof of his capture, while others questioned whether taking his life really meant, as the president said, "Justice has been done." Some Christians also said they were troubled by overnight street celebrations outside the White House, in New York City, and elsewhere, citing Proverbs 24:17: "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles." And Ezekiel 18:23: "Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?"

Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Seattle cited Matthew 5:44 ("Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you") and said, "While celebrating may feel like the right thing to do, as Christians we should consider how we relate to the death of evildoers. . . . Christians do well to realize we are more murderous and hateful like Osama than we are perfect and holy like God."

Christopher Morgan, professor of theology at California Baptist University, wrote on The Gospel Coalition website, "Hell is tragic" but "hell is also portrayed as God's triumph." Morgan said the al-Qaeda leader "opposed the true and living God and will be punished accordingly" but added that he was "clearly evil" and deserving of earthly punishment: "The dancing in the streets may not merely be American nationalism, but an appropriate response to the partial display of human justice as we await the final and perfect display of divine justice in the coming age."

On Monday pastor John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis posted a statement that "God approves and disapproves the death of Osama bin Laden." In writing on his Desiring God Ministries blog, he said that's "not double talk." While human death is not God's pleasure, "when a rebellious, wicked, unbelieving person is judged, what God has pleasure in is the exaltation of truth and righteousness, and the vindication of his own honor and glory."

Labib Madanat, director of the Palestinian and Israeli Bible Society, told me he hopes that Christians will do more than debate. Bin Laden's death brings earthly justice not only for Christians and Westerners but for Muslims also: "He has so much blood on his hands all around the world. Jordanian Muslims killed while celebrating a wedding. Iraqi Catholics killed in their church. This guy is soaked with the blood of innocent people. Our world is better off with him gone. I pray God will use us and this moment after his death as we minister together so more and more come to know Jesus."


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