On October 2nd 2006, in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvannia, in a one-room schoolhouse, a gunman called Charles Carl Roberts IV took hostages, shooting 10 Amish girls aged between 6-13, and killing five, before turning the gun on himself and committing suicide. What happened next shocked America, and was a talking point in the media across America.
On the day of the shooting the grandfather of one of the murdered girls was heard telling some younger relatives “We must not think evil of this man”. Another Amish father remarked
“He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he’s standing before a just God.” An Amish neighbour extended forgiveness to the killer’s family hours after the shooting and went to comfort them. One Amish man is said to have held Robert’s father, sobbing, in his arms for an hour. About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts’ funeral, and Marie Roberts, his widow, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims. Marie Roberts wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbours, thanking them for their mercy, grace and forgiveness. In it she said:
“Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.” The only action to destroy that the Amish took was to destroy the schoolhouse where the shootings had taken place, and in its stead they built a new one. They did not deny their grief, but they sought to understand it and use it as a vehicle of love. However, believe it or not, they were criticized in some sections of the media for being “too forgiving”.
In May 2011, while watching Channel 4 news, I remembered this story. My memory was jogged by a woman who was the mother of one of the victims of 9/11. She held a picture of her son in her hand, and was asked by a journalist how she felt about the shooting of Bin Laden. Her words I can’t remember; they were to the effect that she rejoiced in his death. But the memory of her face is something that will stay with me, etched as it was in years of hatred and bitterness and grief. That image, compounded with scenes of jubilation from the streets of Washington and New York have troubled me ever since.
Martin Luther King Jr once said “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” As someone who has experienced seeing someone die in front of her she loved, and who has experienced grief, I can empathize to an extent with the families of the victims of 9/11, though I totally understand that the sheer scale and drama of the attack renders it beyond a grief that most of us will ever have to grapple with. However, the act of assassinating Bin Laden which is illegal both under US and international law, is an act of such darkness that I fear there is no point of return after this. The gulf between revenge and justice becomes ever wider in the States, and yet the line is more blurred. Gone are the days for the USA of adhering to international law; the illegal invasion of Iraq by the unholy alliance of Bush and Blair put paid to that, and this latest act has put paid to the notion that anything has changed under the current administration. As much of an Obama-sceptic as I have been over the last four years, even I was shaken to the core by this latest act of depravity.
There are those out there that will, and do think: “But c’mon, Bin Laden was a bad guy, and ya gotta get rid of bad guys, right?” Wrong. We do not live in a virtual reality, where every villain is to be exterminated at the touch of a button. We live in a very real, and potentially very beautiful world, would we but choose to act beautifully. What Obama sanctioned, as the leader of the United States, negates every single American citizen, and makes us less than we could be. I say us, because that includes me – and that bothers me. The Office of President is meant to stand for something, a shining beacon of democratic possibility, and slowly but surely every inhabitant of that office in recent history is reducing it to mean nothing more than an office inhabited by the likes of that other famous Chicagoan, Al Capone.
For in truth, if we look outside to what the rest of the world thinks of the United States, that is what is thought of them – that this is a country led by a group of political gangsters, egged on by the mob, who no one dares challenge for fear of retribution. Hawk-wannabes like David Cameron may pay lip service to this deed – but I doubt that he would ever dare carry out a similar exploit. This is not down to his own integrity, as I believe him to be a man of very little. It is more due to the fact that the electorate would punish him, and rightly so for it; whereas the opposite seems to be true historically in the States. What I heard from people in London over the week following the execution was heartening; despite the mainly right-wing media’s best attempts at rabble-rousing, most Londoners and indeed most Britons are agreed that that those scenes of misplaced patriotic fervour would never be repeated or tolerated here, despite the 7/7 bombings.
Some American friends have asked me both publicly and privately whether we shouldn’t have assassinated Hitler, as if Bin Laden were an equal tyrant. This comparison I find quite bizarre, and frankly a little worrying. Firstly, let’s be clear: Bin Laden was no Hitler. He didn’t occupy countries; he may or may not have masterminded one of the most dramatic terrorist attacks in living memory, because, let’s face it, Bin Laden denied being the mastermind behind this attack as much as he admitted to it. Bin Laden did not set up concentration camps, and systematically set out to exterminate 11 million Jews, Poles, homosexuals, disabled people, Catholic priests, gypsies, or anyone he perceived as a threat or “other”. In the camps alone, Hitler killed 3,667 times MORE people than were killed at Ground Zero. That isn’t even counting the civilians that were killed under the Occupation or the Blitz. And Hitler wasn’t assassinated by “our guys” – he committed suicide in a bunker in Berlin. The only tenuous link between them is that supposedly between Bin Laden and Hitler is that both their deaths were announced on the same day (and quite frankly, although it is of little concern now, months on, until some DNA testing is done by an independent verifier I am sceptical that he was actually assassinated in May – the “fact” that the body was thrown out to sea to sleep with the fishes seems to add fuel to the fire for conspiracy theorists everywhere. It is entirely possible that Bin Laden died years ago, dependent as he was on his dialysis machine, and was only kept “alive” for the purposes of bogeyman propaganda).
But if we take the Obama administration at their word, that Bin Laden was killed in May with the President and his cohorts ghoulishly watching the execution from the comfort of Washington (The brave and bold Barack! Ordering the assassination of an old man with kidney failure and then watching it with all the intensity of a spotty teenager playing a game of Full Metal Jacket), it does beg the question: Where is the justice in this? Revenge there seems to be plenty of, but justice is an entirely different thing. For justice to have been done, it required that Bin Laden have been captured and put on trial. Even the leaders of the Nazi regime, those that were captured, were afforded that. And it was not purely for their benefit either.
Shakespeare once wrote : “The quality of mercy is not strained./It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven /upon the place beneath.It is twice blest:/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes./Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes/The throned monarch better than his crown” In denying Bin Laden the right to a fair trial, Obama actually exposed America’s weakness and hypocrisy, especially with regards to their actions politically outside America. I do not believe that 20-25 Navy Seals (and as the story on this changed on a daily basis from the White House, it was hard to know what actually happened – was it 20-25 Navy Seals? Or did they perhaps send in John McClane, shouting “Yippie-ki-yay, motherf**ker”? Who knows?! At this stage anything is possible…) could not have captured Bin Laden and brought him alive to stand trial in the States, no matter how many pesky wives threw themselves in front of him. It may have been more costly in the short-term; but it would have been the right thing to do. It would have sent a message to the rest of the world, who are increasingly disillusioned with the lack of change in foreign policy under the Obama administration, that no matter what mistakes have been made in the past that in this at least America was prepared to act according to the letter and spirit of international law. It would have shown that the era of cowboys has left Washington for good, and that there was a new era of mature politicking in its place. It would have shown that rather resorting to the short-term satisfaction that revenge offers, that justice has more to offer in the long-term. But all this was squandered, and for what?
And even if he had been brought to justice, and tried, and executed, as Saddam Hussein was, what real purpose does execution, legal or illegal under international law, serve? Granted, the former affords us, as a society, the veneer of respectability, the appearance of “playing fairly”. But as the Amish community in Nickel Mines realized, random acts of violence and their perpetrators are not just “random” – they can challenge us, as human beings, to really live our values rather than just give lip service to them. They force us to confront the inevitable pain that is inherent in our journeys as human spirits and transcend that which is basest in said spirit and transcend it. It forces us to shed our different layers of protectionism, both in a communal and individual sense, and be exposed for the frail and vulnerable beings that we are. And if we chose to embrace that vulnerability, to really own it, and to choose the light of forgiveness rather than the darkness of revenge, then that is a weapon of justice that no terrorist or “rogue state” can understand.
On that day in May I saw very clearly two Americas: the America of the Amish, the America of light and hope and potential; and Obama’s America, of darkness and mindless revenge and corporate slavery. One points the way to redemption, the other to demise. And I know which America I would prefer to be part of.