Before I answer this question directly, it should be noted that forgiveness does not give assent to the horrible actions committed by another. Forgiveness allows us to heal from harms done to us by moving forward and not allowing this pain to continue to control our lives.
Forgiveness, therefore, can and should always be offered. Reconciliation, however, is often much harder to attain, because those who have done harm may, in fact, not be sorry for what they’ve done. Irreparable damage may indeed have been done. For example, someone may wish to forgive a parent for something they did to them in the past, but if the parent is no longer alive, reconciliation will obviously not be possible. Offering forgiveness, however still frees the person from the sting of resentment and hatred.
In the case of Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 terrorists, as Catholics, we are called to forgive them. Evil has a way of trying to keep us trapped in the prison of hate and resentment and in doing so, we may in fact perpetuate the same kind of hatred that may have started in the hearts of the people who committed horrible atrocities on that fateful day.
I lost two dear friends and my wife lost a cousin in the attacks of September 11, 2001. I know I wanted the terrorists to die for what they did. However, isn’t that evil using it’s wicked influence to try to keep me locked in the ways of hatred and revenge?
Forgiveness also does not nullify justice. Justice can still be served despite one’s choice to forgive someone else. We pray that all who do harm will be brought to justice and pay their debt to society for what they’ve done. Regardless, we still need to free ourselves from the hatred we hold toward others and forgiveness gives us that opportunity.
A final word: Some will say that one has to be asked by another for forgiveness. They might even add that they won’t forgive without another asking directly for their forgiveness. This is not forgiveness that they are seeking but rather reconciliation. In a perfect world, of course we’d like those who do evil to turn from their wicked ways and ask our forgiveness. But as Catholics, we are called to offer forgiveness as God forgives. Which means that we forgive without being asked for it. God forgives us without question before we have even asked. Confession is for us to offer our sins to God and to celebrate the fact that God has already forgiven us. As forgiven people, we too, are called to forgive ourselves and to free all from the bonds of hatred and resentment.
So, we might not like to hear this, but, we are indeed called to forgive Osama Bin Laden. In doing so, we become more like God.
And less like him.
For more on forgiving Osama bin Laden read this article that I wrote for The Buffalo News in 2011.
For more on forgiveness check out “The Big Question,” a great movie that explores forgiveness. Watch the trailer below: