21. On the killing of Osama bin Laden
Any time the Western way of war can be unleashed on an enemy stupid enough to enter its arena, victory is assured.
–Victor Davis Hanson
As Americans, I think whatever our political persuasion we all breathed a collective sigh of relief with the killing of Osama bin Laden, al Qaida’s leader, this past Sunday, May 1, 2011.
Yet, as martial artists and Americans, many of us were taken aback by the spontaneous gatherings and party atmosphere of crowds screaming epithets like “U-S-A!” or holding up one of their fingers to indicate that we were Number One, like it was a giant pep rally for a college football championship.
Certainly, a similar scene of joy did occur on VJ Day, to celebrate Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II. That was the end of a large scale conventional war of massed armies. But there is no end to the “War on Terror,” since “terror” is a tactic, not a country, and it’s used by myriad of still-extant cells of religious and political extremists, fanatics and jihadists. Perhaps it’s a joy among people young enough that over half their lives were spent in the shadow of the 9/11 terrorist attack; a feeling of closure now that the chief architect of that tragedy has been put down. Youthful exuberance. That’s hard to deny them their celebration.
I certainly went through conflicting emotions. First was uncertainty…was it for real? Then came amazement, then the greatest sense of relief. Relief that this man, who had become a symbol for thousands of twisted, angry people, had been taken off this Earth, and thereby perhaps in the long term we have lowered the chances of further jihadi attacks against civilians in the West and also in Arab countries. As one news source noted, bin Laden and his philosophy of violence had, over the course of ten years, been battered not just by the pushback from American military and political forces, but the Arab “street” itself has begun to peel away from the use of violence as a tactic. And, it should be noted, al Qaida killed a whole lot of fellow Muslims in their pursuit of violent jihad, and the organization and radical supporters justified it by their twisted, abusive interpretation of a great religion.
So I shed no tears for the man’s death. Yet I also do not crow over the victory. Why? A couple of other martial artist friends commented on their own feelings in their Facebook pages, so my opinion is hardly unique. These acquaintances gave me the idea for this blog.
In summary, it may be that because of our martial training, we simply have a mindset that does not feel good about gloating over a man’s death, however evil that man was. In our opinion, war and killing are horrible options. To do so, even to counter great evil, may be a necessary evil, just as the actual application of martial arts methods in real violent encounters should always be a last and final option, not the first. One FB correspondent quoted Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching. The abridged quote goes like this:
Weapons are instruments of killing and destruction, which are contrary to the nature of life.
…Because weapons are inauspicious, they are not to be the instruments of a gentleman.
Only when one has no other choice may one resort to using them, and if their use is necessary, one must employ calmness and restraint, for peace and quiet are the normal nature of universal life.
Even in victory there is no cause for excitement and rejoicing. To rejoice over a victory is to delight in killing and destruction.
…This indicates that war is treated as the equivalent of a funeral service.
…Even when a victory is won, the occasion should be regarded as lamentable.
(translated by Hua-Ching Ni)
If some say that this is just some passive “Or-ee-entl” mindset, then we should pay heed at least to a Western philosopher, the Stoic warrior-emperor Marcus Aurelius. Lest we become as bloodthirsty as the jihadi, he said:
The noblest kind of retribution is not to become like your enemy.
I think it was proper and fitting that the US military performed Islamic death rites as best they knew and could, given the situation, and after verifying it really was bin Laden, they disposed of the corpse and the government chose not to release the photo of the body. That certainly was more respect than al Qaida ever offered its thousands of victims after they were killed, and we have to be better than the terrorists. That is what this whole battle is all about: it’s a contest between ways of thinking, a clash of ideologies, and we cannot sink to their level else we become no better than them.
Photographs will do no good and could be used by our enemies as a rallying point. Worse, they could be used by idiots to glorify the attack. I’m sure some screwball would immediately silkscreen the bloody, gory photos on a t-shirt and sell it in the streets of New York City immediately. Bad taste has no boundaries.
As martial artists, therefore, I think many of us reacted surprisingly the same way: relief, but no jumping in the streets screaming at the top of our heads and getting drunk as a skunk. Relief, but a sense that this wasn’t the end; it was just a milestone along the way to the final defeat of violent jihadi ideology.
This is zanshin in budo translated to our regular lives. Even after victory, the saying goes, you tighten your helmet straps. Don’t lose sight of the goals. Don’t show any openings, because the enemy can still strike if you are momentarily distracted.
Martial artists are not military folk, although the two often overlap. I would not dare to put any of us on the level of training, fitness and abilities of serving military, especially of our special forces. Nor can I compare the daily sacrifices of our police and security officers to what we do as a pastime. But I believe there can be a shared mental attitude of service to others and preparedness. Therefore, if one is to be a total budoka, not just someone who goes to a gym for a twice-a-week physical workout in something called martial arts, then the mental and spiritual component of budo is really important as a major part of training. That attitude is a martial one, in the old sense of the word, in the sense of attitudes stressed by Lao Tzu, Confucianism, Buddhism, and other religious and philosophical sources that made up the spiritual and mental wellsprings of our art.
Chinese philosophers were Confucian at their civil service jobs and Taoist in their personal retreats. Roman warriors could be stoic in battle but epicurean when it came to enjoying life. One does not have to be a dour and salty old soldier to do martial arts. But I would suggest that without investigating how martial philosophy does affect one’s personal outlooks, you’re only learning half of what budo offers.
So I close with two other relevant quotes, both from philosophers who were addressing military men and martial artists:
To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence.
The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.