Family Matters

A Celebration of Death: Parents Parse the bin Laden Fall-Out

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A complex mix of revenge and satisfaction at vanquishing evil has combined to make this country a very happy place this week. Generally, it’s bad form to gloat over another’s misfortune, but parents are relearning social conventions in the days since Americans heard U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden.

Yet as U.S. officials ponder releasing an undoubtedly gruesome image of the al-Qaeda figurehead’s corpse, as well as footage of his weighted body slipping into the sea, parents can also be forgiven for feeling shaky about how to explain why we’re celebrating violence.

There’s no need to make excuses for the elation that’s swept the country, say child psychiatrists. “It’s good news,” says Susan Abbott, an assistant professor of pediatric psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine who has a private practice in Manhattan. “There’s no way around it. To deny it’s good news is to deny our right to survive and protect ourselves. And you celebrate good news.” (More on Time.comYour Brain on bin Laden: Why Vengeance Is So Sweet)

Should photos be released, it’s best to shield young children, recommend experts; older children who are interested need to be forewarned that the image will be disturbing and bloody. It’s also important to explain the photos are being distributed not for gratuitous reasons but to prove to doubters and conspiracy theorists that bin Laden is indeed dead.

The college students whooping it up in front of the White House late Sunday night needed no such convincing. To me, the festive atmosphere smacked of Palestinian revelers handing out candy after a suicide bombing or those who partied in the streets in the Arab world after 9/11. My husband pointed out that while they were extolling the deaths of civilians, the students were celebrating the demise of a man who had waged war on the U.S. and declared all Americans targets. The observation that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” has never felt more relevant. Still, rejoicing at death feels funny.

On Monday, I wrote about the tricky choreography involved in explaining to kids why, in some situations, murder might be justifiable. In what I called the “inconsistencies of wartime,” I contemplated how to retain the moral high ground we like to think we occupy as parents. “We teach our children that two wrongs don’t make a right but apparently sometimes they do: because al-Qaeda killed 2,974 people, is it right to assassinate its leader?” (More on Time.com: Mommy, Who’s Bin Laden? Kids Born After 9/11 Want to Know)

You’d be hard-pressed to meet someone in this country mustering up any significant amount of sympathy for bin Laden and his watery fate. That said, it’s important to explain to kids the unusual circumstances that make it O.K. to champion killing. Only in cases where there’s clear danger — bin Laden’s penchant for making ominous videotaped pledges of doom, for example — would society sanction taking a life.

It’s not really much different — though the outcome is more violent — from settling the score for other transgressions, such as a priest who abuses children or a burglar who breaks into a home and kills its inhabitants, says Roslyn Seligman, professor emerita of psychiatry at University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and now a child psychiatrist in private practice. People who break the law are arrested; in extreme circumstances of misdoing, the death penalty is handed down. (More on Time.comIs It O.K. to Feel Happy About Osama bin Laden’s Death?)

“This is different from someone getting killed who is not a bad guy. We’re sad about that,” says Seligman. “Parents should explain that the cheers come because a bad guy was caught. It wasn’t just that this was the mastermind of 9/11, but we constantly felt he had something else he was planning.”

It’s that “something else” that makes this situation unique. “Is there a bigger picture that justifies the celebration of a death?” says Abbott. “Even though you don’t want to celebrate a death, he killed a lot of people and continued to be a threat to us. That’s the big difference here.”

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