Queens Students Ponder the Morality of Killing bin Laden

A column on the slaying of Osama bin Laden strikes a chord with readers

By Gabe Pressman
|  Thursday, May 19, 2011  |  Updated 6:45 PM EDT
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Queens Students Ponder the Morality of Killing bin Laden

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People celebrate in the streets near ground zero.

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Writing columns  can often be a lonely task. You focus on an issue that is affecting a large number of people or on a person whose life and ideas have great interest. You write about it and then go on to the next column.

Sometimes, you may get the idea you are writing on water. Other times, you get lots of feedback in this age of Twitter, Facebook and email. But the other day a letter came in the mail -- people still communicate that way -- that touched me very much. It was good to know that I was getting a response from some young people, reading my posts in cyberspace.

The letter was from a teacher of morality at St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens. He had read my piece titled "Vengeance Is Not the Answer" and used it for a class lesson. In that column, I wrote of the jubilation that followed the killing of Osama bin Laden. It was understandable that many New Yorkers and other Americans felt good about it. We could relate to the young people who went down to Times Square or the White House and waved flags and cheered. We could understand the spirit of vengeance in the air. I admired the courage and skill of the Navy seals who invaded bin Laden’s compound.

Yet I regretted that we could not confront him on trial.

But then I recalled the first time I visited Auschwitz, in 1949. I was enraged when I saw the remnants of the Nazis’ largest death camp. There were barracks buildings filled with hair shaved off the heads of women just gassed [the Nazis shipped hair back to Germany to fill mattresses]. There were mountains of shoes stripped off the feet of the dead.

I was angry at the men who committed this atrocity. I wrote my mother about it -- and she wrote back:

"I’m not worried about what your hatred of the Nazis will do to them. I’m worried about what it will do to you."

The teacher of the morality class at St. Francis Prep, Anthony Grimm, wrote that he assigned his class of young people, ages 16 to 18, to read the column and then write to me about their reaction. He sent me copies of five essays by his students.

Here are some excerpts from the students’ writings:

Dierdre M.: "Is it right that the incident of a human being getting shot in the head brings a sea of happiness to an entire country? The attack that Osama placed on our country was horrific and malicious, killing nearly three thousand of our civilians, but does this justify our happiness with his death?"

Nicholas Pertoso: "I agree with your overall message that vengeance is not the answer because I feel that it will eventually lead to greater conflicts and later wars."

Katarzyna Dobrzanska: "I come from Poland and I understand your reaction to the relics found there. It was a great crisis for so many people and a scar that was left on the hearts of all the Polish people...However there are things I do not agree with in your article. You wrote that it was disturbing to see the headlines in the tabloids and the various comments that were made about his death. I do not think there is anybody in US that is against death of bin Laden. He took so much from us that the whole country wished him dead for the past decade."

Michelle Appiah: "You said that the feeling of vengeance was understandable following the death of Osama bin Laden. I most definitely agree with you that this feeling of vengeance should not guide us on how to act in the future."

Peter Sorgini: "I agreed with this because, if we use the death of a person as a guide for the future, we will only become what he was, an evil person, and we need to set an example for the rest of the world."

Congratulations, Mr. Grimm. I can see why you were touched by the essays your students wrote. And I can see why they’re lucky to have a teacher who keeps them on their toes.

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