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Pamela Gerloff, Ed.D.
Pamela Gerloff

The Psychology of Revenge: Why We Should Stop Celebrating Osama Bin Laden’s Death

Asking the questions that will bring us peace

I have modified this post slightly to respond to and incorporate feedback from comments received to the original post. Many thanks to all who are contributing to the conversation. --Pamela

While the killing of Osama Bin Laden is being enthusiastically celebrated throughout America and some parts of the world, to say that such merriment is out of order will surely be considered heresy. Nonetheless, I'm saying it--because it needs to be said. For starters, let me ask this: "Those of you who are celebrating--could you just pause for a moment and consider: What message are you sending the world?"

I certainly understand how those who have suffered from the events of 9/11 may feel relieved, even happy, to have "closure" after ten years of waiting for "justice to be done"--and I don't quarrel with such feelings. Closure is a natural yearning and can help people move on from serious trauma. And, of course, feelings are feelings. If you feel joyful, you feel joyful.

But celebration in the streets and on the airwaves is neither appropriate nor advisable--really--no matter what your feelings of elation. Here's why.

"Celebrating" the killing of any member of our species--for example, by chanting USA! USA! and singing The Star Spangled Banner outside the White House or jubilantly demonstrating in the streets--is a violation of human dignity. Regardless of the perceived degree of "good" or "evil" in any of us, we are all, each of us, human. To celebrate the killing of a life, any life, is a failure to honor life's inherent sanctity.

Plenty of people will argue that Osama Bin Laden did not respect the sanctity of others' lives. To that I would ask, "What relevance does that have to our own actions?" One aspect of being human is our ability to choose our own behavior; more specifically, our capacity to return good for evil, love for hate, dignity for indignity. While Osama Bin Laden was widely considered to be the personification of evil, he was nonetheless a human being. A more peaceable response to his killing would be to mourn the many tragedies that led up to his violent death and the thousands of violent deaths that occurred in the attempt to eliminate him from the face of the Earth; and to feel compassion for anyone who, because of their role in the military or government, American or otherwise, has had to play a role in killing another. This kind of compassion can be cultivated, as practitioners of many different spiritual traditions and humanistic philosophies will attest.

We are not a peaceful species. Nor are we a peaceful nation. The public celebrations of this killing throughout the country draw attention to these facts.

The death of Osama Bin Laden gives us an opportunity to ask ourselves: What kind of nation and what kind of species do we want to be? Do we want to become a species that honors life? Do we want to become a species that embodies peace? If that is what we want, then why not start now to examine our own hearts and actions, and begin to consciously evolve in that direction? We could start by not celebrating the killing of another.

It is hard not to think that some of the impulse to celebrate "justice being done" may also contain a certain pleasure in revenge--not just "closure" but "getting even." The world is arguably not safer with Osama Bin Laden's violent demise (threat levels are going up, not down); evil has not been finally removed from the Earth; the War on Terror goes on--so any celebration must be tempered with the sobering fact that much work still needs to be done to establish peace. The truth is that "celebrating justice" when one person is killed--as happens regularly in the gang wars of American cities--only incites further desire for revenge, which, from "the other side's" viewpoint, is usually called "justice."

Consider this: If a leader in our country were killed in the manner in which Osama Bin Laden was killed, as "justice" for his acts of aggression in the War on Terror--and supporters of that act were shown proudly chanting their country's name, singing their national anthem, and demonstrating in the streets--Americans would likely feel more sickened than joyful, wouldn't you think? The impulse to celebrate a death depends on what side you're on.

The bottom line is that we cannot even begin to have peace until we stop the cycle of jubilation over acts of violence.

So isn't it time to ask: Who will stop the cycle? If not us, who? If not you and I, who will it be?

Do not ask for whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.

--John Donne

Dr. Pamela Gerloff is co-author, with Robert W. Fuller, of Dignity for All: How to Create a World without Rankism (Berrett-Koehler).

© 2011 by Pamela Gerloff

About the Author
Pamela Gerloff, Ed.D.

Dr. Pamela Gerloff, holds a doctorate in Human Development from Harvard University and is co-author of Dignity for All: How to Create a World without Rankism.

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