Is It Immoral To Take Joy In Somebody's Death?
On April 8th, 2013, almost exactly eight years ago at the time of writing, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died of a stroke in London aged 87. Reactions were mixed. The news was, naturally, met with sorrow and tributes from the serving government, especially from PM David Cameron and the Conservative Party, as well as from leaders across the globe, praising her as one of the nation’s greatest peacetime Prime Ministers. However, Thatcher’s death was also met with widespread lack of sympathy and disdain from her opponents: half of Labour Party members boycotted the House of Commons tribute to her, and other organisations like the National Union of Mineworkers and residents of coal towns criticised her legacy. Among the wider public, there were street parties were held to celebrate her death across cities like Glasgow, Liverpool and Belfast. There were demonstrations in London, graffiti calling on her to “rot in hell”, and brigading from online trolls. The song “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead” received a huge surge in popularity. This sentiment has continued to this day, with her grave frequently described as a gender-neutral bathroom. The polarising reactions to her relatively peaceful passing demonstrated the conflicting opinions the public held of her, but also sparked numerous debates over the moral nature of the reactions – was celebrating her death moral or not? There is no simple answer.
First, it is necessary to answer the key question – why would it be immoral to take joy in one’s death? It seems obvious; death is almost universally regarded as bad, being the (normally) unwanted end to a person’s life. The subject can be very delicate, especially to those who were close to a deceased person. As a result, taking joy in a person’s life ending is often considered offensive and insensitive, both to the dead individual’s legacy and to their family and friends. The origins of this viewpoint are ancient, stemming from cultural beliefs over spirits of the dead taking revenge on those who did not treat them with respect. But with history littered with morally deplorable figures who have caused suffering and death to millions, we might think that there is often some reason that deaths could still be a cause for celebration.
The modern debate on its morality did not originate with Thatcher’s death. Celebrations for the death of disliked figures have existed for centuries; the assassination of serving Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, for example, was met with delight from hungry workers who had been oppressed by his government. More recently, debates have been sparked by the assassinations and deaths of other prominent public figures and criminals. Such a topic is complicated to discuss. First, there must be a distinction between actively celebrating someone’s death and being indifferent towards it. It is easy for lines to become blurred when indifference is conflated with relief at death. I will note that this essay does not concern either relief at the dying person’s suffering ended in their death, e.g. euthanasia, or celebrations of a person’s life, e.g. funerals.
The main point from those who believe that celebrating one’s death is immoral is that the loss of a person’s life is a tragedy, no matter who. This is an understandable viewpoint and has long tied in with similar long-running debates on subjects regarding death, such as capital punishment for murder. The death penalty is regarded by many as being inhumane and irreversible: killing killers makes the law no better than the killer.
When the deaths of unquestionably evil figures have been brought up to this side of the debate, such as whether killing Bin Laden or Adolf Hitler would be justified, a clear distinction is drawn – ending the life of an enemy combatant who is actively bringing suffering upon people is different from executing a prisoner trapped in a cell, as it means those suffering will not suffer any longer. The deaths of evil figures who are oppressing people is a necessary evil, the benefits of which (lifting people out of suffering) outweigh the moral drawbacks; as such, taking joy at the killing of a figure who directly causes death, like bin Laden and Hitler, is not generally regarded as immoral (opinions on foreign military intervention aside), even if a trial is preferable. A prisoner, in this side of the argument, is in the care and the mercy of the law and executing them serves no purpose.
But does that make it immoral to celebrate the death of a prisoner who has committed inexcusable acts of evil? In 2012, militant Ajmal Kasab, who killed 72 people in the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, was hanged in Pune, India. While authorities in multiple states banned celebrations and took people into custody for celebrations, that did not stop ordinary people from feeling joy at the justice served. I would say that, while I disapprove of the death penalty as an effective punishment, it is not immoral for people to celebrate the execution of someone like Kasab, a terrorist and a murderer who helped to gun down innocent people and aid in 166 total deaths.
That said, the previous two paragraphs have concerned people who are unquestionably murderers. When it comes to political figures, especially Western ones, it becomes more difficult to suggest that it is justified to celebrate one’s death. Returning to the killing of Bin Laden in 2011, I am reminded of a quote by scholar Noam Chomsky; “we might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush's compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic.” Chomsky maintains the view that the killing of bin Laden is as justified as would be the hypothetical assassination of George W. Bush for his supposed war crimes in the Middle East.
I will take a Chomsky-like position when analysing this side of the clash. The truth is that a large number of Western politicians in the past few decades have caused death and suffering to a wide variety of people, be they citizens in war-torn regions across the globe or citizens of the countries they govern. This is not partisan either. Donald Trump’s incompetence at managing the Covid-19 crisis in 2020 led to hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths. Barack Obama ordered airstrikes that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians in the Middle East. George W. Bush began the Iraq War. Ronald Reagan treated the AIDS pandemic like a joke. Many believe that Thatcher’s policies were a force of devastation for British industry and for mining regions and caused great suffering to millions of working-class men and women. In that regard, someone who has actively suffered from the policies of such a politician cannot be blamed for being relieved and even happy when that politician dies.
The problem with maintaining this viewpoint on celebrating death towards political figures is that the suffering they have caused is far less clear-cut and agreed upon than it is for figures like bin Laden, and the impacts of their actions are very subjective. There are disagreements on the extent to which Trump’s mismanagement resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands; there are disagreements on the extent to which Obama and Bush are to blame for the deaths of civilians, et cetera. I would say these cases differ from bin Laden in an important fashion. While these politicians’ policies have resulted in deaths, they have not been acted with the explicit purpose of killing people. Bin Laden, however, was a militant and a terrorist and masterminded the 9/11 terrorist attacks in order to kill innocent people. But intent does not matter when it is you who is affected by the oppressive policies of politicians. Some believe it could be construed as a callous to hold the belief “their policies did not affect me, so I do not take joy in their death.”
There is another type of person whose deaths are celebrated that I have not yet covered – those who have promoted suffering in ways other than death. The example I have chosen to represent this is a recent death, Rush Limbaugh, the conservative political commentator who died of brain cancer in February 2021. Limbaugh revolutionised conservative radio but was perhaps more well known for using his national platform for outbursts and jokes that targeted all kinds of minorities, to the extent where many claimed that he made his career off homophobia, misogyny, and pure racism. His death was met with all sorts of vicious reactions online from those deploring his actions throughout his lifetime, with many uttering “Rot in hell” or “good riddance”. Limbaugh did not, however, kill anyone. Does that make it immoral to take relief or joy in the death of such a person? Columnists Steven Petrow and David Wolpe believe that celebrating Limbaugh’s death would make one no better than Limbaugh was in his lifetime, but others, like Pastor Daniel Schult z write that it is “a privilege to be able to say with a shrug “He’s just not worth my hate”, considering all the communities he targeted.
It is extremely difficult to say. For a man like Limbaugh, an extreme example, it may be justified, given how he himself celebrated the deaths of gay people from AIDS, mocked people as “sluts”, and deriding Barack Obama as “Barack the Magic Negro”; in addition, there is a clear connection between his words and his influence on the modern Republican Party’s extreme path. But while Limbaugh made bigoted comments and helped diminish civility in politics, at the end of the day, he did not directly cause death. I am not a fan of the use of the term “slippery slope” to describe free speech when censoring bigotry. However, if celebrating the death of a figure who made insensitive jokes is not immoral, then where is the line drawn when it comes to comedy? Most comedy works off making light of serious topics. Bigotry is a type of suffering, but does one have the right to take joy in the death of someone who once made a racist joke? What about those who have indirectly contributed to a harmful system, but never directly caused death or suffering (like Prince Philip, who recently died)?
The line becomes very blurred when it comes to celebrating the death of this kind of individual. I would say, however, that in principle, it is not immoral to take joy in the death of an individual who directly caused great suffering or death. That is not to say it should be encouraged. But rather akin to taking the life of a dictator or a murderer to prevent further deaths, taking joy in the deaths of such awful people is a necessary evil. Politics aside, one would not blame somebody for celebrating the death of their relative’s murderer. So bear no shame in celebrating the death of immoral figures, be they politicians or terrorists. Take comfort in knowing that they have done worse.