I went to sleep after CNN broke the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death and before Obama’s speech. I drifted off remembering the incredible relief I felt many years ago when a person who committed a great crime against me died, and I wished the same for the Sept 11th survivors and families.

I can honestly say that it never occurred to me that people would have pep rallies and keg parties while I slumbered. I can’t help but think about the part in the story of the Exodus when God admonished the angels for celebrating when Pharaoh’s army was swallowed by the Red Sea. How can you rejoice when my children are dying?

Despite having just paraphrased the supposed words of God, I’m not particularly religious. And as a not very religious Jew, I don’t go in for the heaven and hell thing. I believe that there is at least a kernel of good in each person and when we die that good rises from our bodies and minds and joins with the cosmic good created by all the souls who have gone before. Conversely, the pain and evil that also resides in us all is released and dissipates.

Some have described Bin Laden as a mad man but I disagree. Though he certainly had the capacity to devise and implement some extremely evil plans, true mad men, that is people who do not have the capacity to differentiate between right and wrong, are blessedly few an far between. Instead, as I see it, the majority of evil in this world is perpetrated by completely competent people who allow the wounds they have suffered in their lives to fester into bitterness, rage, and eventually, destructive acts.

Marin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Osama Bin Laden: What do these people have in common? They all experienced what they perceived to be oppression as a result of their race, ethnicity, or religion. What puts three of them among the most admired people in recent history and casts Bin Laden as the most evil figure thus far in the 21st century is their reaction to their oppression. And given that I am a firm believer in free will, I propose that our three heroes could have chosen equally evils paths. The Hebrew word is timshel, thou mayest.It’s from the story of Cain and Abel regarding the free will God grants to each human being to choose between good and evil.

So for me, the death of Osama Bin Laden is not cause for jubilation. It is cause for grief that a person chose to react to the horror of oppression by creating infinitely more horror and oppression. Some Americans, Kenyans, Tanzanians, and Afghans, among others, were directly harmed by Bin Laden. Many others of us have suffered in a more indirect fashion, but no matter what, the death of a perpetrator of evil can always be an opportunity for his victims to leave that role behind, become more whole, and proudly don the title of survivors. But these things require time for quiet reflection and integration, not kegs.

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Alison Aucoin is descended from people who spent their weekends dressing up in costumes and taking silly photos of one another to send to relatives who were serving in the Pacific during WWII. She makes her living as a freelance grant writer but is much happier squeezing playdough with her two year-old Ethiopian daughter, creating photography/audio projects, crafting manifestos on her blog (http://endebetehyemhoneyelem.blogspot.com) and making costumes with her trusty glue gun. She is one of only about a half dozen Cajun Jews in existence.

30 responses to “The Healing Power of Death”

  1. dwoz says:

    …only the most impeccable collection of words i’ve read on the subject. Devastating truth.

    • Wow dwoz. Either you haven’t spent much time online today or that is a supreme compliment. I’ll assume the latter. Thanks!

      • dwoz says:

        No, I’ve been combing the internet for any and all scraps of discussion and participating in many of them.

        you nailed it.

        The moral dilemma is not easy to parse. Everything else I’ve read is just more of the same hyper-partisanship. It’s ugly, crass, utterly lacking in compassion and historical perspective.

        Psychopaths will be psychopaths and there’s not much to do but isolate them. Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe come to mind. But Bin Ladens are made by the circumstances they find themselves in. The calculus of desperation allows for desperate responses. It may be entirely divorced from what we would define as reality, but it is their reality.

        • I was just thinking that I’m looking forward to watching the online broadcast of last night’s Daily Show. It will be interesting to see what Jon Stewart has to say. Could easily be a sequel to the Rally to Restore Sanity. “We’re all relieved that he’s dead but that’s no reason to act like an asshole” is just as good a protest sign as “I disagree with you but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler.”

          Your comment about perceived reality is right on. I cannot necessarily experience your reality but how you respond to your reality becomes part of mine.

  2. Andrew Panebianco says:

    Well said.

    • Thanks Andrew. I was compelled to write this but wasn’t so sure about posting it. After all, who am I to wax philosophical on a subject as vast as this? Then I thought, with all the nutballs on this interweb, who will notice if I’m totally off base. That said, it’s nice to be getting comments that my perspective is ringing true for folks.

  3. Uche Ogbuji says:


    I think it’s worth saying that though you articulate a great moral lesson, the same point applies from a pragmatic perspective. Unless we consider and assess the forces that have wounded so many, pushing them into the corner where they have to choose whether to rise above their own humanity, as King and Mandela and Gandhi managed to do, or take the path of evil. Until we address the fundamental injustices behind those situations, we’re just going to have more and more bin Ladens. And when you consider the disproportionate effect such a figure can have on popular psyche, it becomes clear that complacency doesn’t work out even from a rude economic perspective. Consider the trillions of dollars in expenditures that have arisen in response to Al Quaeda that could have gone toward productivity as well as social good.

    I do hope that some day we’ll have true cause to celebrate, because we’ve made progress with the fundamental sociological causes of the bin Laden phenomenon.

    • Is there a time when a pragmatic solution is not based on a moral truth? In my experience one comes from the other. In other words, I totally agree. Thank you so much for your lovely poem this morning. I hope your travel was easier than expected.

  4. Kaye Moss says:

    Wow, Alison. Thank you. I have been uneasy all day about the reaction to the death of Bin Laden. You nailed it, and named it for me. You write with great clarity and truth, and your words really touched me.

    • Thanks Kaye. My attempt was to express that gnawing feeling I felt and sensed from online dialogue others were feeling. It’s heartening to know that I am not alone.

  5. James D. Irwin says:

    I’ve been having a similar conversation with a friend of mine. There’s something very unsettling about celebrating someone’s death, no matter what they’ve done. The fact they’re dead and you’re alive puts you on the winning team, and no-one likes a bad winner. Also a hell of a lot of innocent people died to bring you that one faded symbol of a corpse.

    I feel I should add something my history teach always brought up— Mandela’s initial reaction to opression was one of violence. He blew things up, and almost certainly killed people in the process. People can change. Mandela changed to the point the good he has done outweighs the bad. No-one even remembers it.

    No-one is born evil. Bin Laden wasn’t born evil, he became evil. That’s what hate does. It brings out the worst in people. It’s counter-productive focused on the living, and it’s waste of energy to hate a dead man.

    • Thank you very much for bringing up Mandela’s history of violence. I wasn’t aware of it but to me, it doesn’t negate my point. There is no shame in transition from destruction to peace. The tragedy of violence and lost lives cannot be undone but perhaps it makes the point even more poignant. After all, had he not been murdered, Malcolm X could likely have ended up in a list of highly evolved revolutionary peacemakers. From what I’ve read he was certainly headed in that direction. Tragically for so many, Bin Laden gave no indication of being on that path.

  6. I do understand your points and the essay but I feel happy that a man who plotted the 9/11 event is dead, shot by the elite soldiers of Navy Seals. It shows that killers of innocent Americans will be brought to justice and it shows how we value each other’s life, because there’s no money enough in the world to make up for the losses of wonderful Americans and all the heros that died that day and those who died in battle so hey, let take his life and other terrorists’ in exchange even though they are less worthy because of their horrible deeds. Future ones also.

    I would not go out and party like it’s 1999, but I did feel good when they announced that Osama Bin Laden is dead. He did expressed glee and joy at the fall of the towers and the deaths of so many people on camera right after so let us be pleased at his death. It seemed that Osama was just this bratty black sheep of the family sitting and relaxing at a resort/refuge when the American soldiers stormed in and shot him.

    I hope to see if I can find a video of Osama being shot and maybe someone can add laugh tracks at the expression of his face when his brains hit the wall and then add some more laugh tracks when his body is being tossed off the warship to be buried at sea. I wish they could drop it on top of Abottadabad from a plane or toss it off the Freedom Tower.

    Even the Muslims in Michigan celebrated his death because they too were enraged and angry at the losses of American lives and I appreciate their support because we white people did treat them badly and worst across the country and the world.

    I am glad he’s dead for he is a reminder of how his evil brought on our evil in terms of tortures of innocent Muslims all over the world and we can now move on to better things. It is a great sidebar to Obama Barrack’s presidency and he would go down in history as a president of consequence.

    • Thank you for reading and contributing to the dialogue Patrick. It’s obvious that your pain is quite visceral. I certainly understand and wish you much peace and healing.

  7. Reno Romero says:

    Well written, Alison. I get your point. And I agree. Life leads us in weird directions. Some experiences we choose, some we don’t. I had a friend tell me this one day. It was something like this:

    “I admire Bin Laden. The guy is a motherfucker, sure. But he walks the walk. And how many people do you know walk the walk?”

    Like your post I understood what he was saying. Bin Laden was a man of convictions. Jacked-up convictions but convictions nonetheless. I think that’s worth something. In saying that I can’t help but feel for the friends/families directly affected by 9/11. I can only hope this man’s death helps in their healing. Great read, Alison. Thanks.

  8. I can’t say that I could admire Bin Laden. From my perspective, anything admirable about having convictions is negated by the destructiveness of his actions. What a sad commentary that our culture is so lacking in examples of individuals living out there convictions that people are attracted to mass murderers who walk the walk.

  9. I had a house full of teenagers yesterday afternoon who were disgusted by the media coverage that focused on the celebratory atmosphere surrounding Bin Laden’s death. In my kitchen, while they ate and drank, they talked over one another about how the celebrations felt almost like the crowds that chanted against the US, about mob mentalities, about the ever more real threat to our safety. They marveled at college students who burst from their dorms, of flags waving not in glory but in anger, and of the way we looked as a nation to the world as we danced on the grave of an enemy.
    And then I came here, and read this and I shared it with them. Nice work, Alison.

  10. 43 years-old and I’m FINALLY in with the high school set. Yippee!! But honestly Robin, I am heartened to know that at least some subset of a future generation of leaders gets it.

  11. Gloria says:

    Allison, thank you for saying all of this. I agree, and I’m not sure I could’ve said it with so much grace and heart. xo

  12. pixy says:

    this is a perfect way to put it. i have many feelings on the subject, but one of them is not, and has not been, jubilation.
    i’d imagine that those who felt that way also harbored bitterness, resentment and anger toward the subject, making themselves a little bit like him as well.

  13. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    We already discussed this, but for the official record, BRAVO.

  14. Oh, my secret out. Virtually all TNB posts are vetted by my own personal, and very poorly paid editor. For the official record, I couldn’t do it without your support.

  15. DR. Irwin F Rosentover says:

    Reason is not always the first casualty in the face of murder, but it is right up there. I thought of the same quotes as you Allison.I dislike the word “closure” when faced with a violent act of murder. Nothing will ever erase or give me closure for the murders committed before our eyes on 9/11.Bin Laden is dead and it is written that you sometimes reap what you sow.All of us answer to God in the end and I am sure that there is precedent for satisfaction over the death of individuals who have committed terrible acts. However, the totally inappropriate response of crowds of Americans,trumpeted by our leaders and cheer led by large elements of the press rankles my soul.
    When a family member witnesses an execution of a hated felon, there are many emotions can go through their minds,Jubilation and cheering are rarely present. It defies reason in the face of loss. Thank you Allison for giving voice to those feelings

    • Alison Aucoin says:

      Apologies for the late reply. Sometimes this dang system forgets to tell me that I have a comment. It’s really frustrating!

      Anyway, you might notice that I didn’t use the word ‘closure.’ Don’t like it either. Whatever would we close? We are a different nation and people after Sept 11th. Of course, I;d gladly leave behind the pain but the lessons, I’ll keep thank you very much.

  16. I had this discussion with other people, and it really sums up the difference between heroes and villains, for want of a better phrase. Gandhi and King (and Mandela, although Jim’s right to point out his original actions) responded to the need to elevate their people with non-violence, whereas bin Laden chose a totally different road, and it’s why the former are revered, the latter reviled.

    Thanks for this, Alison.

    • Alison Aucoin says:

      Please forgive my late reply Simon. Never got notification about last three comments. Drat!

      As you know, Miss Ella loves a good Disney movie and lately there have been a lot of conversations about good guys vs bad guys. I’m doing my darndest to swim against the tide on this one because frankly, I think it’s important. When she brings up a bad guy I remind her that a bad guy/girl is simply a person who makes unhealthy decisions. When its a real person and not a character, he or she can decide to make good decisions at any moment. Transformation is often difficult but always possible. I am either raising a highly evolved daughter or one who thinks her mother is a real kook. Possibly both.

  17. Good article. I’ve been reading a lot of stuff today that has made me feel pretty happy about the world. I’m glad so many people are able to go the other road – away from partying in celebration of his death. Honestly, as I’ve said in other comments here today, I did feel happy that he died. It was a pure gut reaction brought back from how I felt 10 yrs ago. But no, I didn’t celebrate and I won’t and I don’t like seeing even evil people die.

    I think that the important thing is that the world is talking about this now. After 9/11 there was so much anger, and we were all sucked into phony wars and a whole lot of hate. Not that there wasn’t hate before then, but it became worse. The death of bin Laden won’t miraculously stop terrorism or bring home US troops or stop hate between religions. But maybe the debates that have been raised will contribute to these things.

  18. Alison Aucoin says:

    Please accept my apology for the late response. The system sometimes skips altering me to a comment…

    I agree! I can do nothing about terrorism or US foreign policy but I can contribute to a dialogue that is transformative. Maybe this will happen over a bottle of wine but never while tapping a keg.

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