Osama bin Laden: The Closure That Isn’t

The subtle weight of bin Laden’s death

Posted May 02, 2011

Osama bin Laden is dead. For some, there is cause for celebration. Others may feel some vindication. Some, lest we not forget our humanity -- and, frankly, to our potential peril -- may even be wont to mourn. But for many, there is no closure here, and this death will serve only to revive the grief and rage that has subtly gripped the national consciousness for a decade.

Death comes to us all. Yet, one of the great mysteries of the human condition is that, despite the fact that we are surrounded by death, we, ourselves, do not believe that we will die. That sense of immortality extends itself to those around us and, when they are taken from us, whether on the swift wings of tragedy or through the languorous course of disease, we are almost always nothing, if not surprised. So it was on 9/11 when so many were torn from the bosom of this life, quite literally, before our very eyes.

That experience has stayed with us, no matter whether we lost someone or not, and Osama bin Laden has become, for many of us, the symbol of that experience. That symbol is now gone, and while his weight and import remain seared into our emotional landscapes, both personal and collective, we no longer have a place to put those crushing emotions of rage, or grief, or loss, or guilt, or fear, or sorrow. For many, those emotions now range free, and pick at the scab of a wound that will never truly heal.

For the moment, we may experience a certain satisfaction that the book has been closed on one of the most dangerous men of his generation, if not this century, and that we have taken our revenge. But revenge is a hollow mistress and she quickly falters in her quest to make us feel better. What would on the surface appear to be an opportunity for closure will, for many, be a doorway into a reverberation of most, if not all, of the emotions originally attached to the events of 9/11.

In psychosocial terms, this is called latent traumatic stress, the time-distant cousin to post traumatic stress. Where post traumatic stress is a reaction to an event or collection of events, latent traumatic stress is a reaction to an event or collection of events that represents the original stress or trauma. What that means for you and those around you is that, after that initial sense of closure winds down, other things may begin to bubble up in none too pleasant ways.

Everything has consequences -- good, bad or indifferent. As we consider the grander scale of bin Laden's death, we should also consider the smaller, more personal scale of the potential emotional toll it may take on those so profoundly affected by its antecedents. The closure that we expect may, in fact, be no closure at all, and could well stir the pot of roiling emotion that, for some, time and distance has allowed to keep at bay.

So, today is a little different than yesterday, and tomorrow will be even different still. How we receive those differences, what we do with them and sensitivity to how those differences affect both us and those around us is important in terms of continuing the process of healing a wound that for us, both as individuals and as a nation, may never truly find the closure for which we hope and dually expect.

© 2011 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved