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

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, to someone who is very impressionable and could use this extreme example to easily lump all people into purely good or bad? 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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14 Responses to “The Killing of Osama bin Laden: How do I Explain it to a Child?”

  1. Aninnymoose says:

    So your plan is to bore the 9yr old into not caring anymore? Uhhh… mission accomplished in paragraph 1. I am guessing the following 3 paragraphs are there because you hate children?

  2. Catherine says:

    Very well said Dr. Rob!! I have been strggling to put into words my own response. I, too, found the cheering distasteful, as the letter writer did. But, part of me was happy that the world was no longer home to such a hateful man. I suppose there were always be people to step in to take his place, but it does go a long way in showing we are not paper tigers.

  3. Cam says:

    “Justice is to be appreciated, not celebrated. It’s a time for sober thought and reflection, not a mimicry of capturing the Stanley Cup”

    This is probably the smartest, simplest thing that I’ve read in regards to this whole debacle.

    I might use it somewhere in a future blog. I’ll credit you with it though 🙂

  4. BL1Y says:

    You forgot the part where a Texan from a wealthy and well-connected family plotted the whole thing as a way to gain support in settling an international personal grievance.

    I’m with you though that this isn’t cause for celebration. The people out dancing in the streets were not celebrating justice, they were celebrating the death of someone they hate; justice just happened to be along for the ride.

    Celebrating harm to your enemies just makes it easier for violence to perpetuate itself. We should feel bad when we kill, even when the killing is entirely justified. Keeping that emotional check in place forces us to ask what is the absolute minimum harm we need to inflict; celebrating it encourages us to find more people to go after.

  5. I liken it to putting down a rabid dog that represents a danger to a community. Bin Laden and his organization represented a danger to people in the West, the Middle East, and a lot of other places.

    Kill or capture is one of those judgment calls – a lot of people suggested that perhaps it would have been better to have him taken alive, wearing undignified prison coveralls, facing a trial. But that trial would have been a platform for him to promote his ideology – an ideology that represents a threat to the existence of USA, Canada, UK, and many other nations.

    The rabid dog Bin Laden needed killing. Doesn’t mean that you celebrate it or you degrade the poor animal in its death. But it’s too dangerous to be left alive.

  6. RCGT says:

    I don’t see the words “bad” or “evil” anywhere in that. Seriously though, don’t you feel addressing a topic like this to a child requires a certain moral compass? I don’t think it’s the worst thing to emphasize that yes, honey, a bad man did a very bad thing, and yes, he can’t do that anymore.

    Not to say that we’re immune from bad things happening to us now, but if I was a kid and I heard that, I wouldn’t know what to think.

  7. Rob Dobrenski says:

    @RCGT: Osama is such an extreme example so this argument may fall flat, but do you really want a child to start basing his/her assessment of people as a whole as “good or bad” or “evil or virtuous,” even though we all know that people are a mix of both? Should a child begin to lump people into single categories? You could say that bin Laden is a bizarre exception, and you’d be right, but children generally can’t make those fine differences like adults can (or should).

  8. Joe says:

    So, I suppose we were wrong to celebrate the death of Hitler, V-E Day and the end of WWII? Killing bin Laden was an achievement ten years in the making. He was the face of international terrorism for roughly two decades, unique in the world because he was independently wealthy and willing to totally and publicly dedicate his life to the murder of Americans and the spread of an ideology that can only be described as pure hate. He used and subverted entire countries to those ends and could operate outside the nation-state system because of his resources. I am absolutely willing to celebrate killing bin Laden because he was rightfully the face of evil in the world and worked hard to earn a bullet in the brain. I see nothing wrong with teaching a nine year old child that some people simply have to go if the rest of us are going to be safe and our system of government can continue. If it takes ten years for that person to go, I think that deserves a few rounds of drinks.

  9. BL1Y says:

    Joe: There’s a difference in believing that some people have to be killed for the sake of the rest of us, and celebrating that killing. It should be more like eating your vegetables, something you know needs to be done, but which you take no pleasure in.

  10. Chris says:

    I absolutely disagree. Not only was bin Laden as guilty of murdering thousands of Americans as Charles Manson was during his brief reign of terror, he also has managed to distort the perception of an entire religion as well as finance and support the murder of his own people.

    His death is a victory for humanity no matter the nationality or religion. And ought to be celebrated as such. In fact, having his corpse torn apart by wild dogs would not have been too inhumane. There have been few humans who have truly deserved death for their actions, and he’s certainly in the top 10.

    Is alQaeda dead? Far from it. Is he a martyr to jihadists everywhere? He already was. But he needed to die, and I couldn’t be happier that waste of skin is no more. I only wish he could have suffered a far more painful end than he did.

  11. An_Irish_Brit says:

    Hmmm… I’m quite surprised you’d say to a 9 year old that someone who means to do you serious harm “will have to die…” Rob. I never had you down as an “eye for an eye” man. It’s almost a pro-death penalty stance you’re taking there. On the whole I think you struck the right tone and kept it balanced with your “…some think this and some think that” type of approach, though, but it seems a little clouded with your own opinion, if I’m being entirely honest. I actually think it could have been more balanced, but maybe that’s just me…

    I agree with you about the frat house mentality of the chanting, though. I’m know it was a symbolic moment for Americans (and all people who lost loved ones on 9/11) and I can appreciate the sentiment, but, like you said, this was definitely a time for pause and reflection not fanning the flames of hatred. I read one tweet by @simondouglas that aptly summed this up: “AMERICANS. Win the battle for hearts and minds by killing Bin Laden then screaming ‘USA USA USA’ into the nearest TV camera.” If sober thought and reflection had occurred then maybe everyone could have thought back 10 years, not only about thier loss, but how they felt when they saw their aggressors celebrating after the twin towers fell; I must say, I found it all quite unpalatable too. And the same for bin Laden being taken out, like Naom Chomsky* put it yesterday: “We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic.”

    I suppose it’s easy being an armchair military expert and to be critical and have an opinion with the benefit of hindsight, but I still can’t understand why he should have died, though. Yes, I appreciate the fraught situation the Navy SEALS would have been in (“brave” being the understatement to end all understatements), the pros of eliminating al Qaeda’s charismatic leader, how it would have been impossible to get a jury together who hadn’t already formed an opinion on him aaaand that this was a wholly exceptional and unique case, but I’m still left with a feeling of emptiness about all this. That it was wrong.

    I read a piece in The Guardian** which said, ‘…to suggest that “justice has been done”, as President Obama did on Sunday night, seems perverse. This was not justice, it was an extra-judicial execution. If you shoot a man twice in the head you do not find him guilty. You find him dead. This was revenge. And it was served very cold indeed.

    Given the nature of the 9/11 attacks a popular desire for vengeance in the US is a perfectly understandable and legitimate emotional response. It is not, however, a foreign policy. And if vengeance is a comprehensible human emotion then empathy is no less so.”

    I actually think what happened irrevocably demeans America’s exemplary record of democracy. To make a decision for non-judicial execution and to abandon the rule of law was, and is, a very naive step for a country that prides itself on being better.

    * http://www.guernicamag.com/blog/2652/noam_chomsky_my_reaction_to_os/
    ** http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/may/03/bin-laden-death-us-patriot-reflex

  12. An_Irish_Brit says:

    Next time I’ll do a shorter comment. Promise.

  13. An_Irish_Brit says:

    I just read this: http://www.richardkmorgan.com/news/719/sophistication/

    I felt it was nearer the point you were trying to make. I think I was a bit too hard on you initially.

    [See! A MUCH shorter comment. As promised.]

  14. DrJ says:

    Some strange analogies and predictable comments on both sides of the fence.

    Picking up on one such comparison: I didn’t know Americans *celebrated* V-E day or specifically the death of Hitler. In the UK the word *remembrance* is more often associated with the anniversaries of the end of a war.

    Also, how can anyone assert that Osama Bin Laden is *unique*, and still point out that al-qaeda still exists and means to do us harm? If Bin Laden was unique then we don’t have that much to worry about from global Islamic extremist terrorism.

    As for explaining it to kids? “It’s complicated. Now go and play with your toys.”

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