With impeccable timing, my daughter and her husband found themselves on a pleasure-trip in the Washington, D.C. area last week when news leaked that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden.
Demonstrating that she inherited more than just good looks from her father, my daughter's news instincts kicked in, and she soon grabbed her camera and headed for the White House to witness the gathering crowd of spontaneous celebrants.
Within seconds of arriving, she came face-to-face with the question many Americans have been asking themselves ever since. Is it proper to cheer and celebrate the death of another human being, even if that person was as evil as Osama bin Laden?
What she saw ranged from people draped in the flag, hanging from tree limbs in Lafayette Park and cheering, to a young woman silently holding a hastily made sign on poster board reading, "Never forget." She photographed everything from a dog draped in the Stars and Stripes to a young father with a child on his shoulders.
Similar celebrations broke out in New York City and elsewhere, including, no doubt, in many private living rooms. In many hearts, a sudden surge of joy fought against instincts that urged dignity, led by President Barack Obama's own solemn announcement of the news.
This was, after all, not the end of the war, but the death of its instigator.
The debate itself says a lot about who we are. A society devoid of conscience wouldn't raise the question in the first place. Vengeance would be its own reward.
But this is a nation founded on principles rooted in religion, caught in a daily cultural tug-of-war that pits the spiritual against the secular. Just about every national, communal event gets viewed against that backdrop.
A nation that revels in free expression, in an age where anonymity has begun to divorce expression from accountability, even found a way to seek wisdom in a piece of fabricated sage advice.
Not long after Sunday's announcement, the following saying began circulating the Internet, attributed to the late Dr. 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."
He never said that. It was, instead, written by Jessica Dovey. Salon.com reported that the 24-year-old teacher wrote the comment as her own, then put it in front of a legitimate King quote on her Facebook page. She apparently set Kings comments apart with quote marks, but that didnt keep others from removing those marks and assigning the entire quote to King. As English teachers will attest, punctuation does count, even in the Internet age.
Still, Dovey's thought is worth contemplation. Perhaps a better quote comes from Russian author and communist dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, "Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts."
Christian author and blogger Jim Wallis cited that quote during last week's tumult and added this observation: "But the death of bin Laden must become an important historical moment of reflection. How do we best respond to evil and those who perpetrate it? What have we learned in the last 10 years about what truly is the best answer to the violence of terrorism? How do we change the conditions that have allowed terrorists to pull others into their agenda?
"In this fallen world we are often faced with imperfect choices in response to the clear dangers of evil. Religious wisdom always has us look also at ourselves and what opportunities we have to be makers of peace."
The crowd in front of the White House, mostly 20-something students from nearby universities, may not have been thinking that deeply as they chanted and cheered. From the reports my daughter provided, those cheers ranged from the jubilant "USA!" to the crude and profane.
Their decision to congregate is understandable. Theirs is the generation whose childhood and youth were interrupted by bin Laden's evil. But it also is their collective view of right and wrong, of evil and moral dignity, that will carry the nation into its future.