Thousands and Ten Thousands

I have a friend who came back from serving in Vietnam 40 years ago. Shortly thereafter, his father, who owned a liquor store, was shot and killed during a robbery. The killer was African American. My friend’s family is white.

“I used that for a long time,” he told me. “I’d say, ‘It’s OK for me to hate black people, because a black guy killed my dad,’ but really, I was racist. I was racist before the guy killed my dad and I was racist after. The only difference was that I had an excuse.”

For some reason, that conversation – which is two decades old itself – has been rolling around in my head since I saw the news of Osama bin Laden’s death Monday morning. When I read the news, I felt relieved. I did not feel glad. I did not run out into the street and dance.

Is it good Osama is dead? It’s clearly good he will no longer kill and given it’s extremely unlikely he was ever going to have a change of heart, his death is also expedient.

In 2003, the US invaded Iraq because, we were told, Iraq was allied with Osama bin Laden and had weapons of mass destruction. Neither claim was true. Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have since died. When George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld die, will Iraqis be justified if they dance in the street?

Among the secondary reasons for invading Iraq was that “Saddam killed his own people.” Then we killed some of Saddam’s own people. They’re all just as dead as each other.

The Declaration of Independence says we’re all created equal, so are our deaths equal? I suppose it depends on who kills and who is killed, whether it’s an “us” or a “them.” My friend, in his racism, saw African Americans as “them,” people he feared and hated. Maybe the man who killed his father felt the same way about white people and perhaps he had excuses, too. The same friend said in Vietnam, anyone killed by an American had the word “Commie” attached. “Why’d you kill him?” “He was a Commie.” He said a pig was shot in a village one day. “That was a Commie pig,” was the explanation.

This week Libyans are killing each other. A year ago, many Americans would have celebrated the death of any Libyan, since they were all “them” then. Now some Libyans are “us” and we try to keep them alive.

The book of Samuel records that a song popular among the women of Israel long ago went, “Saul has slain his thousands and David his ten thousands.” The song made Saul, who was king, jealous of David, who was the exciting new military commander, the Navy SEAL of his day.

“Bin Laden has slain his thousands and Bush has slain his ten thousands.” The math holds up, probably better than it did for Saul and David. Is it unfair of me to write that? Is one man a terrorist and one a patriot? By whose definition?

Is killing ever good? Is it ever worth a celebration? I can’t say it is.

© Mark Floegel, 2011

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