Death, sympathy and Distinguishing – Is Donald Trump equivalent to Bin Laden?

Have a watch of this video clip.  I wonder if you can spot the mistakes that Ash Sarker makes in her response.

Sarkar’s argument is that she sympathises with those who have been celebrating Donald Trump’s illness and wishing for his death for three reasons.

  1. That we use black humour to cope with tragic situations and process the horror of them.
  2. That Donald Trump is a thoroughly immoral man who should be held to account for his wicked actions
  3. That the same people who are saying it is inappropriate to celebrate the misfortunes of Donald Trump were celebrating the deaths of people like Osama Bin Laden.

I would suggest that Sarkar’s mistake is a failure to carefully distinguish and in so doing she has failed to see, understand and empathise with the responses of others.  Let’s take things in turn.

Humour and Tragedy

Sarker is right to say that we often use humour to cope with tragedy. There has been a significant amount of it throughout the virus.  To give some examples

  • People have joked about wanting to reset the year back to 2019.
  • The Government’s policies and communications have been mocked mercilessly
  • People have made up alternative “COVID” lyrics to songs.

There has even been  a level of humour around Trump’s health. In a sense, he is an understandable target given the way he has conducted himself through the virus. However, here are the distinctions that Sarkar misses

  • Most people know where the line is drawn in terms of how far the humour goes and its timing. Good comedy might push the boundary but in fact stops being good comedy when it crosses over the boundary.
  • There is a significant difference between black humour, satire and wishing people ill.  Those celebrating Trump’s illness are not engaging in humour, they are not looking for laughs, they are not trying to process the tragedy. They are wishing suffering and death on someone.

Holding Trump to account

The second and third argument actually link together.  You see, it is possible for me to recognise that Trump’s actions over many years have been immoral. I can hold him responsible for some terrible things, I can consider him morally and intellectually woefully unsuitable for the role of POTUS. I may consider the US and the World to be worse off rather than better off for his first term in power.  I can believe all of those things and still distinguish my assessment of his character and actions from what I wish on him in terms of health, suffering and death. I can also distinguish his actions from those of people like Bin Landen. We will come onto that in a bit more detail shortly.

However, the main point is this. I don’t need to wish death on Donald Trump. In fact, for most secular people today, to wish death on someone they consider morally culpable is actually deeply inconsistent. You see, if I were to wish and pray for Trump’s death, then I would do so believing that he would be brought face to face with his creator and receive justice from God. That’s why I don’t wish his death.  You see, I believe that I have benefited from receiving God’s grace and forgiveness. It is right that I should want the same for Trump.  Now, secularists do not think that death leads to judgement. So, what exactly are they wishing? They are simply wishing that a life would end. However, what that means is that if there are victims of Trump’s actions, then they would be denied justice.

If you think that Trump is morally culpable and should be subjected to human justice then what you should want him to see is

  • Landslide defeat and rejection at the ballot box
  • Justice through impeachment and trial for any crimes committed.

Desiring the death of Donald Trump and rejoicing over the death of Bin Laden

This leads to the third point. You see, Sarkar tries to conflate these people into one. However, we do not have to conflate Trump with Bin Laden in order to consider his values vile and his actions morally repugnant.  There are two reasons for that.

First, because as I explained above, there is a course of action available to ensure that Donald Trump receives the justice he deserves.  When people celebrate the death of a genocidal tyrant, terrorist or warlord, I don’t think they are so much rejoicing in a death as they are celebrating a victory over evil. They are relieved that the person’s ability to cause harm has been removed.  As I explained above, the US people have the means to do this without death in Trump’s case through the courts and the ballot box.

Second, because there is a moral difference between Trump and these other guys.  We recognise that there is a difference in law between negligence, types of manslaughter and murder.  We recognise that someone who is negligent or who is happy to see others suffer so long as their own goals are met is morally and legally culpable. However, we distinguish such crimes and wrongs from murder, from the malicious intent that is involved in deliberately taking another’s life.

It is worth noting that Sarkar’s claim that Donald Trump is responsible for the deaths of more Americans than Osama Bin Laden is based on the assumption that Trump is responsible for the deaths of 200,000 Americans because of COVID-19.

Is Donald Trump responsible for those 200,000 deaths? Well if he is culpable, then so too is Boris Johnson for the deaths of 50k Brits (though that example probably isn’t very helpful), Emmanuel Macron for 32,000 deaths and the Swedish Government for nearly 6,000 deaths. As I’ve argued before, it is worth remembering that though different countries followed slightly different approaches and saw slightly different mortality rates, statistically there isn’t that much between each country.  In the end, all countries have sought to respond by providing some social distancing measures and pursuing vaccines, even the USA. All countries, even Germany and New Zealand have had to make decisions about how they balance their COVID-19 response with their responsibility for other aspects of well-being including emotional and economic well-being.  Now we might think that the US could have done better but at the same time we cannot avoid the elephant in the room, that even that horrific death rate is 300k less than the worst case prediction not for the US but for the UK.

Remember it is possible to say all of that without defending Trump. I can say that whilst being disgusted at his treatment of refugees on the Mexican border and what he has at least said about women.  I can say all of that whilst looking forward to his rapid exit from American politics and whilst hoping that he is brought to trial for any criminal wrongdoing.

Third, Sarkar just seems incapable of appreciating that it is possible to be polite and have compassion to people we disagree with.  The assumption is that if I say that it is wrong to mock a man who is in hospital and to wish him dead that I must be a cheerleader for him. The ridiculousness of that can be seen in the way in which Sarkar and friends turned on someone who dared to disagree with her on social media. They accused the person in question of being a right winger, a Trump supervisor and probably a closet racist and white supremacist.  The double irony is that the person in question has been an outspoken proponent of full bloodied socialism for as long as I have known him and his challenge to Sarkar was rooted in what Kurdish and Iranian refugees had said to him.

In my case, I am no Trump sympathiser  but have written critically of those who wish death on their political opponents. Not only am I about as anti-Trump as they come though but I was someone who was sceptical of the Afghan and Iraq wars.  I didn’t particularly find myself rejoicing at the death of Bin Laden or of Saddam Hussein. I wish that these men could have had the opportunity to turn to Christ.

Conclusion

For Christian readers, what I have been describing above are examples of “distinguishing”. This is an essential part of our methodology for ethics, pastoral care, apologetics and theology.  It enables us to make careful decisions and wise pronouncements. This may not necessarily get us media attention and may not always be popular but it will serve us well as we seek to live godly lives.

3 thoughts on “Death, sympathy and Distinguishing – Is Donald Trump equivalent to Bin Laden?

  1. Of course it is also perfectly possible to read this the other way.

    It is quite arguable that Trump is worse than Bin Laden; in that the latter’s wicked actions stemmed from adherence to a philosophy/belief system which, for all that it was entirely wrong, Bin Laden seems to have genuinely believed was required to make the world a better place and to bring about moral righteousness.

    Trump, every evidence shows, has no beliefs but the enrichment and empowerment of himself and his immediate friends and family – demonstrated in particular by his regular mocking in private of those he claims to support in public (and, especially, we are quite reliable informed, evangelical Christians).

    I’m not convinced that I can say Trump is a worse person that Bin Laden either in his motivations or the consequences of his actions. But I’m really not convinced, based on what we know, that I can say he is a better person either.

    On that basis rejoicing over the death of illness of either of them is equally right or, in my view, equally wrong – God is explicit that he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked and therefore neither should we.

    The only good argument I can see in favour of the thrust of your article is that there was no real way to stop Bin Laden from exercising his power for evil other than his death. Whereas US citizens have the opportunity to significantly limit Donald Trump’s capacity to do evil by = voting him out of office.

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    1. Hi Andrew I would say that is to fall into the same trap. As Christians again, we distinguish. First, we can say that “all sin is the same/equal” point in that Trump, Bin Laden, you and me outside of Christ are sinners deserving of death and it is only through Christ’s death in my place that I stand forgiven. However, we can distinguish sin to say that it is different in magnitude and in motive, this is worked out in human justice in that we distinguish crime and so set different penalties. The Bible distinguishes between high handed sin and sins of wandering/ignorance/neglect. So, is there a difference between a man who sets out to kill 3000 people in a day and a man who pursues greed? I would say so. We can distinguish those things and we do distinguish those things in law and ethics. THis is important not just because of our opinions about Donald Trump but because of our attitudes to local church life and church discipline and pastoral care – we do in fact respond to different situations differently.

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