Spontaneous crowds of flag-waving and fist-pumping Americans gathered in New York and Washington D.C. last week to celebrate the killing of Osama bin Laden, and despite the moral questions posed by the macabre rejoicing, feelings of justice and catharsis were said to have won the day. But Kevin Carlsmith, a professor of psychology at Colgate University, disputes those claims. Rather than bringing a sense of closure to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the killing of bin Laden will open old wounds and inspire feelings of vengeance which are ultimately unsatisfactory and prey on our mental well-being.
What’s the Big Idea?
The desire for revenge may have evolutionary roots—wanting to see transgressors punished is an affirmation of social unity—but are feelings that were necessary for nomadic tribes equally advantageous to the mental health of individuals today? No, says psychoanalyst Jeanne Safer: “The problem with vengeance is that it’s an effort to deny or undo an experience of suffering by turning the tables—by making the victim the aggressor—without working through the devastating feelings.” While people have the right to want justice, Safer says, boisterous celebrations inspired by vengeance may deepen the well of troubled feelings.