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Osama bin Laden’s Death Satisfies Our Human Need for Vengeance

The mastermind of 9/11 is dead, and it feels damn good. Does that represent something ugly lurking deep down in our cores? Or is it just a desire for fairness that came to pass yesterday?

A Chicago man reads about Osama bin Laden's death.Osama bin Laden is dead and I don’t know what it all means, culturally, geopolitically, or economically. I just know this: Right now, it feels damn good.

I’m no flag-waving patriot, but I’ve been floating in the same peculiar limbo as the rest of America for past ten years. Regardless of political conviction, most of us agreed that this man had to die. I wasn’t sure why it was so important to me: maybe it was justice. Or vengeance. Or safety or my own peace of mind. But this need for retribution—the one thing that united me with, say, a rabid tea-partier—never got consummated. We were like children who got everything except the one thing we really wanted, and every time Osama wagged his finger at me from some cave in Afghanistan, he threw my desire, my rage, my impotence, in my face. And I wanted him dead a little more.

Then, a funny thing happened. I forgot about the guy.

Maybe I assumed we’d never get him, or that he had died already, or that we had bigger problems to deal with. But our generation’s Hitler, the architect of the greatest crime on American soil this century, no longer interested me enough to click on stories about him on the Yahoo! homepage. Here was a man dedicated to nothing more than seeing my country—my children—wiped out, a man who had the ability to convince millions of the same thing, and I erased him from my consciousness like last year’s Super Bowl.

Now, suddenly, bin Laden is gone, and I’m alarmed by how happy it makes me. His death scratches an itch I had way under my skin for years and forgot long ago. But that need for vengeance, much to my surprise, never left.

The book on terrorism is not over. A chapter has ended. The death of one man cannot compensate for what happened on 9/11, nor can it return all was taken. (This is not an eye for an eye; it’s an eye for thousands of eyes.) I understand that this could mobilize Al Qaeda or provoke U.S. decisions regarding the war on terror based on short-sighted jingoism rather than thoughtful deliberation. But for now, I don’t care about politics. Conservative, liberal, or apolitical, I’m a human being who needs to believe that the world, despite all evidence to the contrary, is a fair place.

Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of Dexter, the Showtime series about a sympathetic serial killer who targets only people who “deserve” it. It’s a silly show that celebrates what therapists would call the darkest impulses of human nature. And I can’t stop watching it, because it tickles, and ultimately satisfies, something ugly lurking deep in my core. Until all the fallout from bin Laden’s death begins, and I suppose it already has, I’m going to wallow in those impulses for a little while and wonder what they say about me.

 

Photograph: Chicago Tribune

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