Bin Laden and Eichmann

I’m glad that U.S. forces found Bin-Laden. I wish they’d found him years earlier; am glad that at least they got him before the tenth anniversary of Sept. 11th.

But I didn’t feel like jumping and waving flags and drinking toasts. This was a human death  — death of someone who pretty much personified evil in our era, but still a human death.

I felt this on a moral level.  Jewish tradition tells us to pray not for the death of sinners, but that they change their ways. The Talmud says God rebuked the angels for celebrating when the Red Sea swept over Pharoah’s army: My handiwork is drowning in the sea and you are singing praise?” (Megilla 10b, Sanhedrin 39b)

But I also felt it on a political level. I wish Bin-Laden could have been captured alive and brought to trial – that his punishment would have come not from a handful of commandos but from a system of justice working deliberately and clearly before the world.

That would send a message that we’re a people of law, that we don’t lower ourselves to the tactics of our terrorist enemies, that there is a better path than tribal revenge.

Some people might argue: What if he were tried and acquitted on a technicality? Bin-Laden was so evil he didn’t deserve the right to a trial. But certainly Adolf Eichmann was just as evil, responsible for even more deaths in the Holocaust. If an Israeli court could try Eichmann fifty years ago this spring — convicting him and making him the only person executed in the history of Israel — couldn’t we have tried Bin-Laden?

Adolf Eichmann in 1942

Now, I don’t want to second-guess the Navy Seals on the scene. What do I know about combat or saving lives under fire? They were under incredible pressure and I’m grateful they fulfilled their mission without having to blow up an entire neighborhood or kill children and bystanders. Even the wife who was in the room with Bin Laden survived.

I also don’t want to second-guess President Obama. We are so fortunate to have him in the White House; I dearly want him to be re-elected; I welcome anything that will bolster his standing. I strongly suspect that – if he had the power to do so – Obama would have preferred to bring Bin Laden to trial too.

So I’ll just quietly hold my regrets. I won’t complain. But I won’t pop any champagne either.


Jewish sources on justice, revenge and celebration can be contradictory. For a summary of these sources in connection with the Bin Laden killing, see this short discussion guide from Congregation Ner Shalom in Sonoma County. A similar discussion from a British Reform rabbi can be found here.

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6 Responses to “Bin Laden and Eichmann”

  1. Nancy King Bernstein Says:

    On the bright side? Think of what politics would have done to a trial…. Yikes…. But on the whole I’m with you all the way on this one.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Yes, a trial would have been a circus if it could even have been negotiated. All those states that refused to take Guantanamo detainees or host trials for them… even more so with Bin Laden.

  2. Susan Says:

    Very thoughtful post. Thanks.

  3. Ilana DeBare Says:

    On a related note, the NY Times had a piece today on Eichmann… how historians are reevaluating whether he was someone “following orders” as Hannah Arendt painted him, or deeply anti-Semitic on a personal level. And how Germany is wrestling with whether to declassify a lot of documents from the 1950s that may show the German government knew where he was “hiding” but never tried to apprehend him. You can find that story at

  4. Arthur Louis Says:

    There isn’t another country that wouldn’t have done the same thing, so I don’t think we have to worry about how others feel about this.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      I guess I am still enough of an idealist — that long American tradition: the city on a hill, new Jerusalem etc. — to believe that we can do better than “everybody else does this, so why not us.”

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