Osama bin Laden: Can There Be Closure?

Among the slew of news articles about the reactions of survivors and families of victims of 9/11 to the killing of bin Laden I’ve noticed the ongoing theme of “closure.”  While some have indicated that this event had brought them some semblance of closure to their grief, I’ve found that most have responded in the manner of Dick McCloskey of South Bend Indiana, whose daughter Katie died in the World Trade Center:

Closure has become a trite word. There is no such thing in the loss of a loved one.

In fact, research is bearing out Mr. McCloskey’s conviction. Studies are increasingly demonstrating that the execution of a murderer rarely brings psychological or spiritual closure to loved ones of the victim. A recent study by the University of Kentucky, for instance, revealed that most victims’ families don’t find peace of mind during the death penalty process or even after an execution:

The study’s lead researcher…says a murderer’s execution is not a soothing salve for many surviving family members, as they still feel victimized, and cites a 2007 study that makes that point.

“Only 2.5 percent of co-victims actually reported that the death penalty brought them closure. And, that includes people that were advocates for the death penalty from the very beginning. At the conclusion, it turns out that almost no one experienced closure at the end of the death penalty process.”

Why? Michelle Goldberg, in a piece for Salon, suggests the answer is rooted in unrealistic societal expectations:

For victims’ families who oppose the death penalty, as well as for some who support it but derived little comfort from the execution of their loved ones’ killers, it’s a myth that the death penalty heals. They say the pop-psych media formula, that catharsis equals closure, has been mostly created by a society desperate to believe that even the worst wrongs can be righted.

Others point out that the desire for “closure” belies the reality that healing from grief is a never ending process:

My goal is to get all of the media to understand that ‘closure’ is a bad word, a word survivors don’t understand. ‘Transition’ is the word we use. That doesn’t mean everything is OK. Never will it be OK, and no execution, no jail sentence, nothing, will help in that process.”

On another level entirely, I was also struck by something else Dick McCloskey said in response to the killing of bin Laden:

This has nothing to do with justice. Justice belongs only to God, not to us.

Whether or not we share Mr. McCloskey’s theology, I think we all can relate to the notion that there are just some things in the world for which there can be no justice – at least on any level we might comprehend. Even for those who believe that bin Laden’s execution meted out some semblance of justice for 9/11 (I don’t, btw), where is the justice for the fact that Katie happened to be in the Trade Center just at that moment, when some of her co-workers might have survived for the most random of reasons?

In this regard, I’m reminded of something Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote in his classic “When Bad Things Happen to Good People:”

I  can more or less understand why a man’s mind might snap, so that he grabs a shotgun and runs out into the street, shooting at strangers. Perhaps he is an army veteran, haunted by memories of things he has seen and done in combat. Perhaps he has encountered more frustration and rejection than he can bear at home and at work…

To grab a gun and shoot at innocent people is irrational, unreasonable behavior, but I can understand it. What I cannot understand is why Mrs. Smith should be walking on that street at that moment, while Mrs. Brown chooses to step into a shop on a whim and saves her life. Whey should Mr. Jones happen to be crossing that street, presenting a perfect target to the mad marksman, while Mr. Green, who has never more than one cup of coffee for breakfast, chooses to linger over a second cup that morning and is still indoors when the shooting starts? The lives of dozens of people will be affected by such trivial, unplanned decisions. (pp.76-77)

Regardless of our theologies – or whether we even believe in God at all – I think we can all agree that there is no ultimate justice in the world. There are some things – too many things – in life for which we will never achieve full closure. The real question before us, it seems to me, is not how to find closure for these injustices, but how to heal from them.

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5 Comments on “Osama bin Laden: Can There Be Closure?”

  1. ruth kane says:

    You are a gift.

    Thank you.

    Deeply wise, felt, meaningful, helpful – your words.

  2. The quest for closure is definitely overrated… I have never believed there really is such a thing… unless by that one means to seal one’s self up and bottle the emotion far below the surface where in can explode unbidden and unexpected on another day.

  3. Howard Ellegant says:

    Perhaps closure as used by psychologists and therapists who strive to help us find it after events that jar our psyche may be a poor term. The idea of healing from such events is appealing. Healing like forgiving (which may be a part of healing) does not mean forgetting. It does mean moving on. Maybe “closure” really means moving beyond the event, not forgetting it, but not being paralyzed by it.

    • Ian says:

      I think that makes a lot of sense. I’ve heard that when someone is grieving, they will sometimes say “I’m getting through it, but I’ll never get over it”. The concept of “closure” sounds like a permanent thing, but even if something is never quite closed up, maybe it’s a word that brings a sense of peacefulness.

  4. Julia says:

    I am not sure if there really is such thing as closure- its more of an ideal or a longing(or something that happens in books and movies). In my experience there is only distance – over time, over space, over place.


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