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Mental health experts caution against retribution

After Osama bin Laden's death, many may feel a sense of triumph, but that doesn't necessarily mean closure for the wounds of Sept. 11, experts say.

May 08, 2011|By Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times
  • People celebrate in Times Square after the death of Osama bin Laden was announced. Mental health experts caution against a sense of retribution.
People celebrate in Times Square after the death of Osama bin Laden was announced.… (Mario Tama, Getty Images )

Do we feel better now that U.S. forces have captured and killed Osama bin Laden? The pictures and video of spontaneous celebrations across the nation, of baseball fans chanting "U.S.A., U.S.A.," of bagpipes and fist pumps at the former World Trade Center site: All declare the answer an unqualified yes.

But researchers who probe the vengeful mind suggest that for some, Bin Laden's demise will reopen psychic wounds, lay bare persistent mental health problems and bring less satisfaction than is widely believed.

For all that some Americans may cheer, beneath the breast-beating and flag-waving, many of them are churning.

"There is a strong assumption that this event will be especially beneficial for the loved ones of people killed or hurt in the events of 9/11, and that they will experience 'closure,'" said Kevin Carlsmith, a professor of psychology at Colgate University and an expert in the psychology of retribution. "But there's really no evidence one way or the other to suggest this is the case — at least, none that I've ever come across."

Evolution has deeply etched in our psyches the impulse to demand retribution against those who do us harm, researchers say: A person who transgresses basic rules of social conduct threatens the coherence and safety of our group, and our need to see the offender punished may have helped us to survive as social animals.

But that does not mean, in man's modern incarnation, that vengefulness is a hallmark of mental health.

That point emerged strongly in a survey of Kosovo residents conducted in 2000. Scientists assessed the mental health and social functioning of 1,399 adults from 359 households in Kosovo about a year after a NATO air campaign ejected Serbian troops from the province. Kosovars, many of whom had fled or been harmed by Serbian troops, were asked about their feelings of hatred and revenge, their desire to act on those feelings, their history of trauma and their symptoms of mental illness and physical complaints.

The 2003 report found that feelings of revenge and hatred were strongest among those with the clearest signs of psychological stress and illness. And those with evident psychiatric illness were twice as likely as those without it to tell researchers they wanted to act on their vengeful feelings.

"The more traumatized someone is, the more they will seek or desire retribution," says George A. Bonanno, director of Columbia University's Loss, Trauma and Emotion Lab, who has studied New Yorkers' responses to Sept. 11.

But this doesn't mean that revenge, when realized, will bring the anticipated catharsis. In fact, some academic experiments suggest otherwise: Carlsmith's research, for example, has found that individuals who are wronged — tricked or cheated in a laboratory setting — may believe that taking revenge on the perpetrator will feel good, but if they act on the impulse they often find otherwise.

"When you actually carry out that revenge, you tend to feel worse than if you'd done nothing at all," Carlsmith said.

This could be because people who punish their offender spend more time ruminating about the offense and the person who perpetrated it, whereas those who do not punish tend to adjust their emotional reactions accordingly, downplaying or avoiding thoughts of the offense and "moving on," Carlsmith and colleagues wrote in a 2008 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The killing of Bin Laden in the context of the U.S. war on terrorism may be different, Carlsmith added; for one thing, the deed was done by professionals who signed up and trained for such work.

But the idea that not punishing is linked to "moving on" may explain why the event has reopened wounds in some who had set those feelings aside. With the trail of the terrorist mastermind gone cold, many Americans, including victims' family members, had turned their emotional energies to other tasks, including rebuilding their lives.

Betty Ann Miller of Milford, Conn., whose son, Michael Matthew Miller, died in the World Trade Center's north tower, was one of those.

"I wasn't jubilant about it," Miller says of Bin Laden's death. "I was glad he was gone. But it was a sad day, because it brings everything back."

Fury may be one of the feelings brought back for many who experienced Sept. 11 as a national humiliation. "To the extent that people support the U.S. action, they will rekindle their anger and outrage towards Osama bin Laden and possible affiliated people or organizations," Carlsmith said.

And then there is the matter of the nature of the punishment meted out. A swift death for the Al Qaeda leader may have prompted, for some, more dissatisfaction than closure. Many Americans last week compared Bin Laden's end to the revenge fantasies they had nurtured, or to pain and suffering he inflicted on his victims — and found it wanting.

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