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Is it Wrong to Celebrate the Death of Osama bin Laden?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

When President Obama announced the death of Osama Bin Laden, crowds gathered in Washington D.C. and else where to celebrate the good news. People chanted, “USA, USA, USA,” and waved American flags. But, what about the biblical commandment, “Thou Shall Not Kill?”

Soon after the announcement, a few Americans questioned the morality, legality and decency of celebrating the death of any human being.

The assassination of Bin Laden raises powerful emotional reactions in most Americans, primarily because of the events of September 11, 2001. Suddenly, all of us in the United States felt that our sense of safety, security and invulnerability to attack from enemies was shattered. We were warned that further attacks were not only possible but highly likely. There was a general feeling of fear and helplessness. Then, one Monday morning, ten years after 9/11, most of us were cheered by the news of the death of one man.

In am sure that most Americans consider themselves moral, decent and ethical people who care about their families and neighbors and have empathy for the less fortunate in America and around the globe. So, how could they cheer? Isn’t it insensitive and barbaric to do this? In fact, doesn’t that make all of us bloodthirsty, and just as cruel as Bin Laden and Al Quaeda? How could we celebrate?

From a psychological and social psychological perspective, the answer is no, celebrating his death does not make us any of those things. In fact, the outburst of joy at learning the news was healthy for the nation.

The outburst of joyous energy that Monday morning had to do with a wonderful feeling of national unity that had been absent for a long time in the U.S. At a time when people were feeling gloomy about the economy, jobs, wars and the nation’s future, a huge success occurred. In fact, it did not just occur; we made it happen through our military leaders and brave soldiers. There was an immediate sigh of relief because the dangerous enemy, the murderer of thousands of us, was gone. This was not revenge. Instead, this was winning a battle in a long and costly war.

Emile Durkheim, the great sociologist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, studied what it is that binds people into groups and nations. He discovered that it is something called, “collective emotions.” These powerful emotions pull people together and make them feel part of something larger and more important than themselves as individuals.

The spontaneous celebrations after learning of Bin Laden’s death were right out of Durkheim, according to Op.Ed. writer for the New York Times, Jonathan Haidt. To repeat, the celebrations had nothing to do with hate, revenge or any other negative emotion. They had to do with feeling a great sense of unity and cohesiveness. There was a renewed sense of, “I am an American and I am part of something wonderful;” another way feeling and expressing patriotism.

As Haidt points out, this had nothing to do with nationalism. Nationalism is based on feelings of superiority and hatred of foreigners. It’s a negative and dangerous force. Patriotism is the love of one’s nation without denigrating others. This is why we celebrated the death of  this person. In my opinion, if this was your reaction, you need not feel guilty.

Your comments and opinions are welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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