News of the killing of Osama bin Laden has affected Americans in different ways. Some are positively gleeful, like those who gathered outside of the White House after the news broke and chanted “USA! USA! USA!” People celebrating in the streets. “Ding, dong, the witch is dead!”
Others, who are more conspiracy-minded, insist on more proof. Where are pictures of the dead bin Laden? Where are the results of DNA probes? Where is the identification of the body by his family?
Still others are feeling deep ambivalence about the whole thing. The killing of Osama bin Laden closes the chapter on the bloodiest day on American soil since the Civil War, so there is a feeling of huge relief. A very bad man has been stopped. Our military has done their duty. But should the killing of any person, no matter how vile, be occasion for outright partying?
Echoing this ambivalence is a quote that is now making the rounds of the Internet, presumably from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” When I saw this quote on Facebook, I felt such gratitude. It said exactly what I was feeling.
Megan McArdle, a writer from the Atlantic, has exposed this quote as made-up; she asserts that Dr. King never said it. Yet I like to think that, in this historic moment, he would have. It’s what a great soul like Dr. King would have brought to this moment in time. “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”
The key spiritual question is and has always been, “What do we love?” What we love we serve; what we serve we become. So we must carefully cultivate a love of what is good, in all things. To rejoice in the killing of Osama bin Laden may seem entirely innocent, but it teaches us to take delight in violence. It inclines our hearts to love what is unworthy. It puts us on a wrong path. What we love, we serve; what we serve, we become. To take pleasure in violence is to serve violence; to serve it is to become it.
“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.”
I have come to understand that the made-up MLK quote is actually adapted from the following real quote:
“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction” (King, 1981, p. 53)
King, M. L. J. (1981). Strength to love. New York Walker And Co. (the original text is from 1963, this pagination is from the 1981 version)