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Joy in Death

A Study in the Sociology of Emotion


Above is the headline for an extra put out by the Fort Myers News-Press last week. It leads with the statement “Relief, Joy” then shows pictures of exuberant celebrants acting as if their favorite sports team just won the championship. Below is a juxtaposition of those celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden (Ceneta AP) and basketball fans celebrating the Lakers’ NBA championship victory (Saxon AP). Granted, US culture often mixes sports and military metaphors, but here we have the equation of normal elation of a victorious sports reference group with the death of man. A couple of questions come to mind. Is this the appropriate expression of emotion for the death of a human being, even a human being whom we can universally agree really deserved his fate? Secondly, what is the appropriate emotional response?

Emotion is a strange beast. On one hand, there is a primal element to emotions, an internal welling of sensations that appears to be automatic, unconscious and real. It is understood that when one is in an “emotional state” at the very least it is a pure and honest expression of self. This isn’t entirely true, however. Emotion is complex tapestry of psychological, biological and sociological forces. In short, emotions are not just “reactions” to stimuli, but also social actions. We don’t just “feel.” We shape our feelings according to our circumstances and express our feelings consistent with group norms and values.

But what is the norm or the situational expectation of the assassination of Osama bin Laden? I must admit to a certain amount of uncomfortable ambiguity when I heard the news that bin Laden was dead. It’s not that felt bad for the guy. I’m not shedding any tears. A sense of adequate emotional understanding of this event eludes me, however. After all, how often does a person defined and accepted as the personification of an evil terrorist mastermind, get killed? There is no emotional reference. There are no emotional precedents to help us define our internal state, and thus no means by which to express these emotions.

So I found it interesting that the News-Press helps define the appropriate response right in the headline. “Relief, Joy!” Relief? Perhaps there’s an element of relief. As a sociologist, however, I see this as a false, or at best temporary emotional response. Are we really relieved? Do we really have something to be relieved about? I don’t think so. The enemies as defined in this age are Al Qaida, an organization, and terrorism, a tactic, not a single man. Killing bin Laden does no more to end terrorism than the death of Hitler did to end racism and tyranny. Yes, a terrorist is gone, but terrorism remains…and may have a new martyr. So relief isn’t exactly the right emotion here. Or, dare I say, relief doesn’t “feel right.”

Even less so is “Joy.” Did we really experience joy at the news of bin Laden’s death? Think about those things in your life that have brought you joy. For me, the birth of my children, marrying my wife, these are definitional as moments of joy. Would I really rate the assassination of bin Laden as a comparable moment in my life? I think not.

We cannot blame the News-Press. If nothing else, this publication attempted to define our feelings with regard to this powerful event. We need some kind of a referent to put our emotions into context. So it’s no wonder that we turned to a sense of “victory” as a way of internalizing the experience. Regardless of our initial reaction we have to admit that we derived some satisfaction in “getting him” as expressed by the New York Post. It was a victory of sorts, and when do we experience this sense of victory as individuals within a reference group? Sporting events.

So the images above do not surprise me, but I have to admit a certain discomfort from this. After all, killing someone is not a sporting event. So when I turned on the news that night and saw people celebrating, whooping and cheering the death of bin Laden I became very uneasy. Is “celebration” an appropriate response to a man’s death even if we believe that man deserved to die? And what does this say about the state of our society and the development of our civilization? That we derive such satisfaction, and may even be prompted to define such satisfaction as “joy,” from the death of another, even the death of an enemy, should give us pause. Is this what it means to be an American?

More disturbing to me is the association of “pride” and “accomplishment” attributed to the death of bin Laden. Even President Obama, who admonished the celebration of bin Laden’s death as “not who we are,” included in his speech “America can do whatever we set our mind to…we can do these things because of who we are.” Is this what it’s come down to? Are we so bereft of any sense of accomplishment and pride that we embrace these attitudes when our nation demonstrates it admittedly awesome ability to kill someone?

Let’s face it. The death of bin Laden wasn’t the Apollo Program or the Hoover Dam or the Transcontinental Railroad or curing polio. We assassinated someone. Yes, we can argue that bin Laden deserved to be assassinated (which is not an argument condoning the assassination itself. That may be addressed in a later post) and the world is better off without him hanging around. But the ability to assassinate anyone we want should not be the basis for national pride. Albeit, we are in desperate need for moon shot, or another great project that demonstrates our resolve as Americans to overcome. To embrace the death of bin Laden as a source of joy, celebration, pride and accomplishment, however, is a profound exercise in desperate grasping. Such reveals the equally desperate plight of our society for something, anything to be proud and joyful over.

This desperation is dangerous.



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