Many Star Trek fans since the sixties hate Section 31, because the original idea of the Federation was an organization of peace and tranquility. Gene Roddenberry created the show at the height of the Cold War to show humans from different ethnic and regional backgrounds working together, black and white, American and Russian. The idea that the Federation leaders were more or less okay with covert assassinations of foreign political leaders—of erstwhile allies, no less—struck many as being to its very core anti-Federation. And it is. I love DS9, and part of what I love is not the concept that the ends justify the means, but that we should think about whether the ends justify the means. We should meditate. We should argue. We should lose sleep at night. We should pray. We should worry. Regardless of whatever decision is reached, we should know that it’s a hard decision and a decision we didn’t want to make in the first place. We know that even if we have to make the decision again in the future—again, whichever way we decide—it will never free us from the burden of torturing ourselves about it.
I write this as Osama Bin Laden is dead. Our President, the leader of the free world, and his military, have caused it to happen. Bin Laden, who chose to murder thousands of Americans and would have murdered even more given the chance, is dead. His chapter in history is over, and now we can officially start arguing over the minutiae. The very first issue under discussion is proof. A week after Obama finally caved and gave the nation his long-form birth certificate (ignoring, of course, that even if he were born in Moscow he would be an American by virtue of his mother’s citizenship), many are calling on him to release evidence showing that Bin Laden really really really was the one shot. I get it—some people don’t like Obama and therefore don’t trust him (or the other way around—your choice). But to demand the release of photographs that show a human being’s head exploded is something else entirely.
Obama has thought it over and decided to not release the photos. Of course they’ll pop up in a FOIA request years from now, but I’m glad they’re not being released now. Partially, I agree with the President on his first point: the photos may be “an incitement to additional violence…a propaganda tool.” But I wholeheartedly agree with him on his second point: “That’s not who we are. You know, we don’t trot out this stuff as trophies.”
Sarah Palin disagrees. That’s no surprise. If Obama said he loved vanilla ice cream, Palin would campaign on a pro-chocolate ticket. She wants us to “Show [the] photo as [a] warning to others seeking America’s destruction.” Palin argues that although it may incite violence or serve as an anti-American propaganda tool, it’s most effective as a head on a pike, a horrible, bloody “Look what we did. Don’t mess with us.” I think it would work. I think that Guantanamo Bay may lead some to dislike America, but it has probably also lead many more to fear us. In the pale moonlight, we may be safer because of doing scary things—or even being suspected of doing scary things. If we show the pictures to the world, many will rally against us. But many more will certainly see that we are scary and will choose not to mess with us.
But that is exactly what I don’t want America to be. If we aren’t that yet, I don’t want us to become that. If we are that already, I want us to back off from it. I don’t want us to be feared around the world. I don’t want our enemies cowed into submission. Honestly, and I know this is naïve, I want people to love us. We have problems, yes, but our founding document, before we got serious and hammered out a code of laws, was a simple Declaration:
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.This does not apply exclusively to Americans. This applies to human beings. If we ever discover aliens with bumpy foreheads or pointy ears, it’ll apply to them, too. The Constitution and Bill of Rights merely say, “Although all that stuff in the Declaration is true, we can only legally guarantee it for American citizens.” That certainly doesn’t mean that we should give up entirely, or that we should ever allow this, our guiding light, to dim. We are a city set on a hill, and like Jesus meant it, we should do everything in our power to help each other. We Americans should do everything to help everyone else in the world, not out of guilt or fear but out of love. As Jesus came to seek and eternally save the lost we as Americans must hope to preach our gospel of temporal human rights to the world. It’s a very different gospel, yes, but it’s a gospel nonetheless, and if we no longer preach it, we no longer deserve to call the Declaration of Independence our own. I don’t want other nations to fear us. I don’t want other people to fear us. Anybody who says “it is better to be feared than loved” is both accurate and a jerk. It may be safer. It may be healthier. It may be stronger. But that’s not the person I want to be to my friends or my students or my wife or my daughter. It’s not who I want to be to strangers. It’s not who I want to be to the people who already call me an enemy. It’s not who I want to be to people who haven’t made up their minds.
I’ll share something with you. I’ve only shared this with two human beings before now, an ex-girlfriend and my wife. I know how it may sound, but it’s personal, and it’s true. On September 11th, 2001, I prayed to God that he would spare the life of whoever was responsible for the attacks. First, I wanted to give whoever it was a chance to repent, to ask for forgiveness, and if at all costs, to change his life. As a Christian, if the perpetrator of even such an attack would come to Christ, I would accept him. It would not be easy, I admit, but Christ demands that I try. Second, I did not want what happened to Mussolini to happen to him. In Wikipedia’s words, “After being shot, kicked, and spat upon, the bodies [Mussolini and his compatriots] were hung upside down on meathooks from the roof of an Esso gas station. The bodies were then stoned by civilians from below.” I prayed that day, raw and shaking, that Mussolini’s fate would not befall whoever orchestrated those attacks. No human deserves that, whether or not his soul has left his body. Again, yes, I am naïve. But I think that’s part of being an American, and I certainly think that’s part of being a Christian. We’re not supposed to be stupid or foolish, but we’re supposed to be guileless, innocent, optimistic. We should not rejoice in the suffering of others. We should pray for our enemies. We should be people of peace, people of love. God gave Osama Bin Laden a soul, and Jesus died for him, and if he was my brother, I would not want his body displayed to the world. I see no reason, no matter how feasible, no matter how practically-minded, no matter how effective, that we should do it. I’m going to wrestle with this, much as for the past five years I’ve wrestles with what I prayed that day. I’m going to wrestle with the fact that God answered my prayer, that Bin Laden’s death, although not peaceful, seems to have been quick. I will continue to worry over every political decision I make, every vote I cast or opinion I voice. I will be—we will be—never free from the burden of torturing ourselves about it.
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