Beyond Retribution: Bin Laden’s Death in its Cosmic Context

Is Osama bin Laden in hell?

For a Christian universalist like me, this is no simple question. But over the last few days it’s a question I’ve been unable to escape: how does a God like the one in which I believe—a God of extravagant love—respond to someone whose life was defined by extravagant hatred?

I learned about bin Laden’s death through Facebook, via a string of status updates—some gleeful, some sober, some ambivalent. But the ones that caught my attention were those invoking hell. I was captured by the sense of clench-jawed satisfaction that accompanied the vivid speculations of an eternal fate that had nothing to do with a bevy of virgins. And I was reminded immediately of a quote from Peter Berger, as he was reflecting on Eichman’s crimes during the Holocaust:

No human punishment is “enough” in the case of deeds as monstrous as these. These are deeds that demand not only condemnation, but damnation in the full sense of the word…

I think there’s something true at the heart of these sentiments. I think our wishes for, as Berger puts it, “a retribution that is more than human,” are more than barbaric vengefulness. I think they’re rooted in the hunger for something we should desire.

But the desire is misdirected. Retributive punishment rarely brings the satisfaction that we imagine it will. And so, more often than not, we conclude that the punishment just wasn’t enough. We envision torments heaped on torments. We imagine an eternal realm in which the most unbearable afflictions stretch out not for days or years or thousands of years, but forever. Anguish without end, Amen.

But the glee that comes from indulging in such imaginings is not something to cling to. It is toxic, cutting us off from the compassion that can bring peace. And yet I don’t blame our drive for revenge as such. The problem, I think, is that we have misunderstood the reason we’re not satisfied when an enemy is punished—even the punishment of death. We think it’s because our enemies haven’t suffered enough—the truth is that it’s because our enemies haven’t been redeemed.

Crime and Punishment

Let me explain. Back in the 1990s I was deeply involved with the Alternatives to Violence Project, an organization committed to offering experiential workshops, mainly in prisons, aimed at teaching nonviolent conflict resolution and communication skills, building communities of trust, and cultivating a spirit of nonviolence. Going into prisons as much as I did, my academic research naturally gravitated toward theories of criminal punishment.

And I became interested in the process—still at the fringes of our criminal justice system—of victim-offender mediation. The concept is as radical as it is simple: Victims are given the chance to confront their offenders and let them know, clearly and unambiguously, how their crime affected them. A skilled mediator works to break down defense mechanisms that keep offenders from hearing and acknowledging the gravity of what they’ve done, with the aim of inspiring them to empathize with their victims’ suffering, recognize themselves as its cause, and take responsibility for it.

The victims also have the opportunity to ask questions, to seek to understand, and to be a part of inspiring and witnessing a transformation in which the offenders’ external punishments are internalized, becoming penance—that is, a self-imposed hardship expressing remorse and the desire for expiation. Often, this makes possible something that victims so often find elusive, but which for them is the greatest gift they can enjoy in the wake of being violated: the capacity to forgive, and so move forward with their lives.

But remorse is only sincere to the extent that the experienced guilt and penitence is proportionate to the severity of the offense. Feeling a little bit bad for masterminding the deaths of thousands doesn’t cut it. In the case of someone like Osama bin Laden, the burden that comes with real remorse would be enormous.

But notice: feeling remorse is not possible if you are alienated from the good. So long as you hide behind ideological delusions that vindicate or obscure the scope of your crime, you will not experience remorse. In this sense real remorse is a sign of coming into alignment with the good, of coming to care about the true and the right. In short, it is a sign of moral redemption.

Hungering for Redemption

And so my theory is this: at the root of our desire for retribution is the wish that those who have wronged us feel the full weight of what they have done, suffering remorse proportionate in severity to the gravity of their crime. In short, we hunger for their redemption. And so, when the retributive impulse is finally satisfied, it naturally resolves itself into forgiveness. The darkness is lifted, because the evil—the dissociation from the good that inspired the crime—has been destroyed.

A lethal injection, ending the life of a self-satisfied killer who remains unrepentant to the end, will not produce what our retributive impulses crave. And so we are left dissatisfied. And because we do not understand what we really need, what the impulse for retribution is really hungering for, we think inflicting even more suffering will do the trick.

A few years after the Oklahoma City bombing, I was wondering—while others gleefully anticipated Timothy McVeigh’s execution—what punishment I would impose if it were up to me. The problem, of course, was that McVeigh was gripped by ideological delusions; self-righteous narratives that cast him in the role of the persecuted hero fighting a war against tyranny. These delusions made it possible for him to hide from the horror of what he’d done. And he had reason to hide. Because if he really came to terms with the truth, the anguish of his guilt would be too much for any merely human creature to bear.

Now I believe that redemption, while it carries with it the pain of remorse, is also the path to wholeness and healing. Once we are aligned with the good we become one with something far greater than ourselves, something which can bear what we cannot. But from the standpoint of alienation this is hard to see. And so we balk at the prospect of dropping our delusions and rationalizations.

But sometimes the truth thrusts itself at us in ways we can’t ignore, driving us towards realizations we’d rather flee. Often this is what victim-offender dialogue achieves, bringing offenders face-to-face with the reality of what they’ve done, making it so real they can’t hide from it anymore.

And so, as I thought about how I would sentence Timothy McVeigh, I envisioned something analogous to such dialogue. I imagined sentencing him to spending all day, every day, exposed to the lives he’d taken—stories about them, about who they were and what they’d done; stories about what their loss meant to their loved ones; stories about extinguished promise and shattered dreams. The faces of children, dead. The faces of mothers and fathers, dead. The hell on earth he’d caused for so many. All day, every day—in person, through video compilations, through written narratives—however it needed to be done so that the truth would crash endlessly against the walls of ideology and justification he’d built.

Would it be hell? At first he’d be stony, or smirking. After a while the smile would begin to show strain. The truth, even painful truth, is hard to hide from when it keeps pounding at you.

Perhaps our human resources are too limited, our creativity too truncated, to crash through the walls that someone like Timothy McVeigh—or Osama bin Laden—has built up around the image of God stamped on his soul. Perhaps, if my fantasy punishment had been imposed upon McVeigh, he would’ve died of old age before the truth could break in and inspire penitence and redemption.

Perhaps so. But God is not so limited. God has all the time in the world, and the resources of the infinite.

So, is Osama bin Laden in hell? Yes, absolutely. But I will not be at peace, I will not believe that justice has been done, until he is redeemed.