The terrorist leader Osama bin Laden is (as you may have heard) dead, and few would argue that the world is not a better place for his absence. That being said, however, and whatever your stance on capital punishment is, it is still a strange and somewhat unsettling thing to be cheering the death of another human being. I think most parents want their children to grow up with a respect for death — to acknowledge that it comes for everyone in time, and that we should in general take no more pleasure in someone else’s death than we would want someone to take in our own.
How, then, do you explain to those same children the cheering, the rejoicing at bin Laden’s death? It’s no easy task, because you first have to teach them about evil, which is tough in itself because if you’re honest you have to admit that no human being is ever purely evil or purely good. It’s hard enough to admit that to yourself — that you actually have something in common with detestable mass-murderers like bin Laden, let alone monsters like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Pol Pot — that it’s extremely difficult to get kids to understand it. Don’t worry to admit that you don’t know the answer to the question “Why?” — or use whatever explanation fits your religious beliefs (if any) to fill in the blanks. Make sure you make it clear (or at least try to) that, whatever Yoda might have to say on the subject, it’s not negative thoughts that make us evil, but rather what we choose to do with those thoughts.
And of course you need to tell them about 9/11, if you haven’t already. Stick to the basic facts — now isn’t the time to go into a lot of detail, because you’d run the risk of overwhelming your kids with information — and especially note that nearly 3,000 innocent people were killed that day, and that al-Qaeda was the group responsible for it all. Tell them that we know this to a certainty, because members of al-Qaeda have not only admitted their culpability but have actually bragged about it.
Then explain what’s happened since then in the hunt for bin Laden: that it’s been nearly ten years since 9/11, more than ten since the USS Cole bombing, and more than twelve since the U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, and for all that time the U.S. military has been hunting for Osama bin Laden so that he could be brought to justice for his crimes and so that al-Qaeda would lose its most important member. And then explain that, last night, President Obama announced to the nation and the world that, at his direction, last night a team of brave, elite members of the U.S. military acted on intelligence information about bin Laden’s location and attacked, killing bin Laden in the process. Whether you should mention the newly-released information that this mission’s goal was explicitly to kill bin Laden, not try to capture him, is a dicier question — my advice would be not to mention it unless asked about it.
Now back to explaining the joy at bin Laden’s passing, and why it’s OK: There’s been a quotation making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook since the announcement last night of bin Laden’s death, though it’s been misattributed to Mark Twain and misquoted to boot: the real quotation, by famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, is (with the line before it that improves it) “All men have an emotion to kill; when they strongly dislike some one they involuntarily wish he was dead. I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.” That really sums it up nicely: You don’t have to think that someone deserved to die to be pleased at their passing. I told my kids, truthfully, that I cheer for bin Laden’s death not because a human being is dead but because a man who in my mind was far more evil than good, and who was responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent people, will never be able to hurt anyone ever again. And that is surely a good thing.