Monday, May 2, 2011

The war on empathy: Reflections on Bin Laden's death

Believe me, I have plenty of other things I could be writing right now. Finals, for one. I could be writing about groups I've run, counter-transference, cognitive behavioral therapy, attachment theory. And I've made an honest effort today, but it's hard for me to shake what is going on in the world out of my mind.

It's times like this that convince me that this empathic streak is a curse rather than a blessing. Why do I feel mournful rather than jubilant over the death of someone who represents the deaths of thousands and a fearful paradigm shift in our country?

Death is death is death is death is death. It's never positive. It's never a victory. Osama Bin Laden dying does not bring any closure for me any more than it brings home any troops from overseas. Bin Laden is just another dead body in the war on terror.

And that's what upsets me so much. The man wasn't considered a threat anymore, and his body is simply a symbol of revenge. I understand and appreciate and honor that many people do probably feel closure or safer after this event, but I find our collective response troubling.

Pamela Gerloff put it best in her Huffington Post piece titled The Psychology of Revenge: Why We Should Stop Celebrating Osama Bin Laden's Death.
"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?" What makes us human is our ability to choose our own behavior. More specifically, it is 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.

Here's where it gets further complicated for me: I don't see how celebrating his death in this manner is doing anything except contributing to the same culture and mindset that led Bin Laden and all other nationalistic mass-murderers to do what they have done and will continue to do.

Until we can, as a society, learn how to become sobered by these experiences and learn how to respect all life, and thus respect all deaths with equal sanctity, these cycles of violence will continue. We will find ourselves in the very same position we are today, and it's not a healthy one. We are not a better people with Osama Bin Laden dead, and the events of 9/11 are not undone. We can, however, prevent these kinds of attacks in the future from happening again (which I feel would be the real honor and the real way those who have fallen can rest in peace) by fostering a world where any and all violence (government ordered or not) is mourned and all human life is dignified.


  1. Thanks for this Michelle. I also struggle with this at times. Is it justice or is it vengeance? It will be interesting to see what comes next. @KathrynB_FSJ

  2. This is exactly how I feel. I'm glad that I'm not the only one who feels this way. Osama's death was nothing more than a temporary satisfaction to America. It did not fix anything, and it did not fix what happened in 9/11. If anything, it caused more grief, ad will probably lead to another act of revenge.

  3. May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

    Also, we invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

    Let's Find 1 Million People Who Want to Build a Culture of Empathy and Compassion


  4. I wrote a bit about that too, the last two posts in my blog.

    I can't say I have empathy for his death. But I would say empathy inspires my sadness for the whole situation.

  5. Michelle, I'm so glad that you wrote this. It is one of several posts I have read that made me feel less isolated in my reaction to Bin Laden's death. Thank you!