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

Pamela Gerloff

Writer, education futurist, specialist in transformational change

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

While the killing of Osama bin Laden is being enthusiastically celebrated throughout America and 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. What I am tempted to say is this: Get a grip, celebrators. Have you so little decency?

I do understand how those who have suffered from the events of 9/11 may feel relieved, even happy, to have “closure” after 10 years of waiting for “justice to be done” — and I don’t quarrel with such feelings. Closure is a natural yearning and can certainly help people move on from serious trauma. And feelings are feelings. If you feel joyful, you feel joyful.

But celebration is not in order, 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. But I say, “So what?” 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 some consider Osama bin Laden to have been the personification of evil, he was nonetheless a human being.  A more appropriate response to his killing would be to mourn the many tragedies that led up to his violent death, as well as the violent deaths of thousands in the attempt to eliminate him from the face of the Earth; to feel compassion for anyone who, because of their role in the military or government, American or otherwise, has had to play any role in killing another.

We are not a peaceful species. Nor are we a peaceful nation. The 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 we need to 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 not safer with Osama bin Laden’s violent demise (threat levels are going up, not down), so no cause for celebration there; evil has not been finally removed from the Earth, so no reason for jubilation on that count. The War on Terror goes on, so there is no closure in that regard. 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.”

Think of it. If a leader in our country were killed by another government in the manner in which Osama bin Laden was killed, as “justice” for his acts of aggression in the War on Terror — and people from that other country were shown proudly chanting the country’s name, singing their national anthem, and demonstrating in the streets — Americans would likely feel more sickened than joyful, don’t you think? The impulse to celebrate a death depends on what side you’re on.

We will only have peace when we stop the cycle of jubilation over acts of violence.

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

© 2011 by Pamela Gerloff 

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