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Responding to the Death of A Mass Murderer

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Last night President Obama reminded us that Osama Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader, but a mass murderer of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Of course, there is no “right” way to respond to the death of such a tyrant. The issue of “rejoicing” over the fall of an enemy like Osama Bin Laden is complex. Many of us are not rejoicing over his death, but celebrating a renewed hope for peace. Rather than celebrating his demise, some of us celebrate the bravery and success of our Navy Seals, and wish to express our gratitude to those who executed this mission and returned unharmed. Many of us are not happy that bin Laden was killed, but are happy for what his death represents in terms of the demise of Al Queda that we hope will follow.

The somber reality of Bin Laden’s death becomes blurred with naturally positive emotions that are embedded in the gestalt of the situation. The Holy One created us with a three-layered brain, and when we look at brain anatomy the response to the death of a mass murderer is even more fascinating. At the level of the brain stem, what Dr. Paul MacLean calls the Reptilian Brain, we respond to a tyrant like Bin Laden in a fight or flight mode – it’s hunt him down and kill him first before he kills again. On hearing of Bin Laden’s death the brain stem responds with relief and a sense of “yes,” which emulates a sensation that feels very similar to joy. But it is not really joy, it is actually a relief that the danger may be over. It is very much like the indigenous hunter’s celebratory sense of victory – not a joy that an animal has been killed, but a sense of relief that the hunt is now over.

In the higher regions of the brain, the Neo-Cortex, we reason that with this death there will be a better chance that terrorism and religious extremism will go into rapid decline. The higher brain functioning helps us rationalize and apply logic to any emotional situation. Mediating between the lower and upper level of the brain, the Limbic Brain responds emotionally, i.e., from the heart. A situation like the news of Bin Laden’s death releases in most of us an odd mixture of fear, anxiety, excitement, hatred, revenge, and the odd sensation that seems to imitate gladness. Again, it is not necessarily gladness that the criminal has been killed, but an adrenaline induced relief that he will not be able to strike again.

If we were family members of a loved one killed on 9/11, certainly a sense of relief and “joy” that justice has been served is a healthy response. As a nation we saw this sense of relief played out at the gates of the White House, at the Philadelphia ballpark last night, in our own towns and cities today, and among some of our Twitter and Facebook friends. An emotional response to the relief of our nation’s pent up anger over 9/11 is natural. If the emotional response is limited and kept in check, it may even be healthy.

Last night our President’s body language displayed relief and a sense of victory without gloating. His words indicated that he believes, as many of us do, that a measure of justice has been served by this carefully executed military action to capture Bin Laden. On a personal level, who is not human enough to have experienced some of each of these emotions in the past twenty-four hours? Who among us can really judge how our fellow citizens are reacting to this news?

Collectively, many of us sense an overriding national unity coming from the news of Bin Laden’s death – an interfaith unity that is the seed of hope for a future free of tyrants, free of mass murderers, free of extremists who hide behind their religions to justify evil. As our cousins in Arab nations are putting their lives on the line for freedom in what some have called the Arab Spring, I am personally trying to lift all my conflicting emotions up to the Holy One. Yes, at the level of my inner reptile I am relieved and “glad” that Bin Laden is dead. I confess I even cheered (limbic brain) last night, and yes, I am making a more sober (neo-cortex) assessment of the whole situation today.

Today in our Omer count it is malchute sheh b’gevurah, the day when we take our G-d given strength, power, and discernment and connect it to the earth and our sense of grounding. Neither can it go unnoticed that Bin Laden was taken out on Yom HaShoah, the day we remember our six million. Regarding Osama’s soul, G-d will have to decide if redemption is even possible for a person who has caused so much destruction. Regarding our response to his death, let us all rededicate ourselves toward making peace in the world – toward being the peace we want to see in the world.

In Psalm 97:10 King David speaks to each of us when he says, “you that love the Holy one, hate evil!” Yes, it’s okay to feel enmity toward those who do harm. It’s unnatural not to hate evil. And on the flip side, it’s dangerous to permit hatred to turn into bigotry. Actions like killing of Osama Bin Laden must not be in the service of vengeance or arrogance, but in the service of G-d’s will, freedom, human rights, and justice for all. Let us not rejoice over Bin Laden’s demise, but celebrate the hope that peace may now be a bit more possible.