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The Killing of Osama bin Laden: How do I Explain it to a Child?

Posted May 05 2011 12:08pm

Dr. Rob,

My son (age 9) and I watched a lot of the footage of the Osama bin Laden killing. When they showed all of the people dancing and cheering in the streets, he asked me, “Mom, did we win something?” I honestly didn’t know what to say. Americans like us and certain parts of the world have waited for over 10 years for this day. I make no claims to even begin to understand the pain of those who lost people in 9/11, and I feel at least some relief at what I see as a necessary step on the part of the United States, but I found our citizens’ behavior…distasteful. What do you recommend I say to someone so young about justice (or perhaps revenge?) in a case like this?

I actually got several emails about this topic, ranging from the most pro-revenge, almost barbaric (e.g., U-S-A! Bring that camel fucker’s head on a spear back to the Stars and Stripes before he rots in hell!) to the extremely liberal, anti-death at all costs (e.g., two wrongs don’t make a right, killing is never good, hate begets hate), but I picked this email because her assessment of Sunday night, May 1, 2011 appears to be the most middle of the road stance. It also happens to be my own position.

Revenge is a very powerful phenomenon that leads to intense, short-term satisfaction. Getting an eye for an eye can actually be a very adaptive process. It gives you motivation and strategy to protect yourself (“if she does this to me, I can do it right back. I’m just as capable and strong.”) and can potentially serve as vicarious learning for those who are considering harming you. If you show people you are not to be messed with, they will often back off.

However, this approach is not without problems. Cognitively, it allows us to believe, correctly or not, that we’ve settled the score. In the case of bin Laden, that assessment would be misguided. While many people casually bandied the term “closure” during interviews, no one who lost friends or family in the World Trade Center attacks would re-experience their loss in exchange for the death of bin Laden under any circumstances. Killing a killer leads you to temporarily believe that the playing field is now equal. Very often, it is not. Just ask the victims’ families.

From a purely psychological perspective, was the killing of bin Laden a necessary step? Absolutely. The direct victims and many people of the United States couldn’t even begin to move on with the notion that innocent people were killed without any accountability. But the people shouting in the trees and the streets of Washington D.C./New York City missed an important concept: justice is to be appreciated, not celebrated. It’s a time for sober thought and reflection, not a mimicry of capturing the Stanley Cup. We didn’t win anything, far from it. And, after the partying has died down, those who have lost the most will still feel hollowness. This event will likely help, but it won’t end the experience.

So, how do you explain this to a 9 year-old? As most of you know, I’m not an expert on children – which makes it all the more puzzling that you continue to seek my counsel on it – but I think I might go with something along the lines of this (note that because I don’t talk to children very much, I often speak in very anti-septic, generic, almost clueless phrases, so feel free to spice it up with a little character):

Before you were born, a team of people led by the person who died tonight killed thousands of individuals in this country in just a few minutes. They captured planes with people in them and flew those planes into very large, important buildings that also had many people in them. The reasons they did this are complicated, but it’s safe to say that in every part of the world, certain groups of people don’t like other groups. These people did not like Americans and other countries like ours. This is how they told us.

If someone in our family was hurt by a person outside of our house, we would want them to be arrested and probably put in jail. It’s not okay to damage someone simply because you don’t like them. But with a man like Osama bin Laden, this wasn’t a real option, because he killed so many people: moms and dads, sons and daughters. He was wealthy and powerful and spent a large portion of his adult life trying to hurt us. He was known all over the world, and if our country didn’t take a drastic step, other countries in the world might think that it was okay to do that to us as well. We needed to show people who want to hurt that you will pay the ultimate price if you do very bad things to us: you will have to die yourself.

The people who are chanting and dancing are caught up in the excitement of having found this man who was able to hide from us for over 10 years. They are also bonding over a common cause. This is, in many ways, a good thing, because connection creates a sense of community and belonging . They also feel happy for the families of the people who died, because those people in particular were hurt the most by Osama bin Laden.

However, some of them think that this means no more harm will come to people in this country. Not many agree with that idea, but at least some do. Some think that if you do to someone what he has done to you, then life is fair. For us, I think it’s important we see that having to take such a strong stance and kill another person means that we didn’t have another option. Too many other people could have been hurt if this man stayed alive. You and I don’t need to do any dances, we just need to see that the world is often a very violent place, and that there are rare times when you need to respond to violence in the same way. My hope and plan is that you never have to do that yourself, but it’s important to know that it’s sometimes necessary so that other people can be safe and live the way they choose.

I could probably spew another thousand words about my attitude toward such an historic event, but you’ve either already agreed with me or swallowed your own vomit. So I’ll just leave it at that and let you have at it in the comments thread here or Facebook if you so choose.

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