Should We Forgive Osama bin Laden and Members of Al-Qaida?

Originally published in The Dispatch, Moline, Illinois, January 20, 2002. Used with permission.

[1] In Mere Christianity, a widely-read book published shortly after World War II, C.S. Lewis suggests that we should forgive everyone, even the Gestapo, Hitler’s hated secret police viewed by many as the most wicked of the wicked.

[2] For many today, Osama bin Laden epitomizes the most wicked of the wicked. Lewis’s insistence that we should forgive everyone, including our enemies, confronts us with a difficult question: should we forgive Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaida associates?

[3] Lewis makes it clear that he is not suggesting that forgiving others exempts them from punishment for what they have done. He believed that the Gestapo and other Nazis ought to be held accountable for the horrible crimes they committed.

[4] To some, it might seem a contradiction to forgive others and punish them at the same time. However, the sense of forgiveness that Lewis has in mind does not involve canceling the penalties for wrongdoing. Rather, it is more along the lines of seeing the person behind the fault while in no way excusing the fault.

[5] But even if this somewhat revised understanding of forgiveness is operative, forgiving Nazis and Osama bin Ladin is still a tall order. Can we do it? Should we do it?

[6] Reflecting a bit about why we ought to forgive other people might be helpful. Sometimes forgiveness helps set the stage for reconciliation. For example, there are remarkable stories of reconciliation between U.S. veterans of the attack on Pearl Harbor and their Japanese attackers, stories that tell of enmity being superseded by deep and enduring friendship. These are wonderful stories. They illustrate what can be accomplished, even in situations in which reconciliation might seem to be beyond the range of the possible

[7] Reconciliation, however, takes time. In many cases, a lot of time. With Osama bin Ladin and his Al-Qaida associates still at large plotting to harm us in whatever way they can, now is not the time to talk about reconciliation.

[8] In part, the reason that we should forgive others is for our own benefit. We all know people who have carried around grudges for years, making themselves (and others) miserable by not letting go of what has happened. Forgiveness entails letting go of the past by not dwelling on it, by not allowing bitterness and resentment to dominate our lives.

[9] In the years to come, perhaps there will be a time to let go of the past insofar as September 11 is concerned. That time, however, has not yet come. The events of that terrible day are too recent, the horrors too deeply ingrained in our consciousness.

[10] Many centuries ago, the author of the book of Ecclesiastes observed that there is “a time for every matter under heaven” and that there is “a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing” (Ecclesiastes 3.1, 5 NRSV).

[11] The time to embrace is not yet here. The pain is still too great, the anger too deep.

[12] Perhaps in the years to come, the time for reconciliation will arrive. We devoutly hope that it will. The present, however, is still a time for anger, a time to refrain from embracing.

Daniel E. Lee

Daniel E. Lee teaches ethics at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, where he is the chair of the Department of Religion.