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Osama bin Laden and the Dark Lord Voldemort

May 4, 2011

The other day I promised some more thoughts on the death of Osama bin Laden, so here they are; and after this I likely won’t mention him again.

First of all, I’d like to get one thing out of the way – good. The world is undoubtedly a better place without him. If one believed in real evil, Osama bin Laden would be at or near the top of the “evilest dudes” list. I should be clear, of course, I don’t happen to be someone who believes that a true metaphysical “evil” can exist in the world; but that said, Osama bin Laden was even at the top of my “evilest dudes” list. He was most certainly one of the bad guys, and I’m not bothered by his death, or the manner of it, in the least.

However, I must confess that I’m extremely disappointed in the reaction to the news of Osama bin Laden’s demise by many of my fellow Americans. A jubilant celebration about a person’s death, any person’s death, is appalling to me. We’re not petty thugs, are we? Never in our history (at least that I’m aware of) have we taken to the streets en masse to show how happy we were about the killing of a single individual. Until I saw it, I couldn’t even have fathomed that anyone would.

I’ve mentioned before how Americans overreact to the threat of terrorism, and the events of the last few days only seem to solidify that view. Many people are treating this as if it’s an actual victory in a actual war. The danger of that belief is not self-evident, but that makes it no less concerning. The “war” we’re fighting isn’t a war in the way that World War II was. There was a clearly defined objective in WWII – surrender by the Germans and Japanese. But how do we know if we’ve won the war on terror? The answer most frequently given is something along the lines of when the world is safe from the dangers of terrorism. But who decides when that is? I’ll give you a clue, it’s not you and me.

Why, then, were so many people celebrating in the streets as if we had just won a war? Well, I have a theory on that; and I believe that it has much to do with the human person’s ability to manage large social groups or, more precisely, their inability to do so. There are some political consequences to this that I’ve discussed elsewhere, but I think that there are also some very important psychological consequences that we’ve seen come into play in the past few days. I ask that you humor me as I take you through a little exercise to help better explain this.

Describe to yourself someone who you know very well. What are the words that come to mind? Besides the physical picture that comes in to your head, there are likely an endless number of feelings and emotions that you have for them; and beyond that there are things that you know about them and about their personality that other people who don’t know them could never understand – even if you were to try and explain it to them.

Now describe Osama bin Laden to yourself. Your ability to articulate the physical picture you see in your mind is probably not all that different from your ability to describe your loved one. However, the rest of the details that you know about the person close to you would most certainly be lacking in your description of bin Laden. They would have to be – you’ve never even met the man, let alone spent any time with him.

Lastly, describe to yourself Voldemort (or Darth Vader, or really any other fictional bad guy). Is your ability to describe him closer to your ability to describe your close friend or relative, or to Osama bin Laden? I suppose it’s possible that you have a close personal relationship with the Dark Lord, at least in your head, but I would guess that this probably isn’t the case. And this is my point – in most people’s minds there is little psychological difference between fictional characters like Voldemort or Darth Vader with whom they’ve had no personal experience, and real people like Osama bin Laden or Hitler, with whom they’ve had equally no personal experience.

That in the first case this is because physical personal experience is a literal impossibility and in the second case it is a matter that such an experience has simply never occurred is of little or no consequence. We may know intellectually that bin Laden is real and Voldemort is not, but until we know it viscerally – until we have met them in the flesh – we have trouble distinguishing them in our minds when not thinking rationally about the matter. The basic reason for this would seem to be that humans evolved to live in naturally small social groups, such that anyone who we didn’t personally know was not someone we really had to know at all.

As smaller groups turned into larger ones, I think the only way for us to come to grips with all of these “other” people we now had to know was to treat them as objects in our mind rather than persons. We as humans can’t really know (in the way that you would a friend or family member) more than 150 people (give or take). Beyond that we can only know of them. We can assign them traits like tall, or blond, or funny, or evil. But we can’t see in them the feelings and emotions that bond us to people with whom we’ve spent real time and interacted with.

The consequences of this have turned out to be rather profound, and I think what we saw Sunday night and early Monday morning – the celebrations in the streets – had much to do with the simple fact that Osama bin Laden has been assigned the role of the ultimate villain in our country for the entire last decade. And because we don’t have an intuitive capacity to distinguish between real villains and storybook villains, many people reacted in the way that one would expect in the storybooks – with a jubilant outpouring.

I would be remiss here if I didn’t add another observation about the street celebrations. They appeared to be mostly populated by a younger, college-aged crowd. It’s possible that this has as much to do with the timing of the announcement (late at night) than anything else. However, I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t observe that it could also be because those people were all of 9, 10, or 11 in 2001 when the terrorist attacks happened – the perfect age to most easily conflate a storybook villain with a real one.

Regardless of the reasons though, I still found the celebrations very disappointing. Perhaps one could assert that we weren’t celebrating death, but rather a victory; but I find that difficult to defend. After all, the victory claimed was nothing else but the death of a single individual; and if we must be realistic, not an altogether important one in most of our day to day lives. No more important  really, than a “person” like Voldemort.

Anyway, there’s my rambling diatribe about the events surrounding Osama bin Laden’s demise. As always, I’m open to various other opinions on the matter. Consider the comments your place to call me a “Godless, un-American, scumbag” or whatever. Just try to remember I’m not Voldemort either (though joining Darth Vader might admittedly be pretty cool).

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