Osama Bin Laden’s Death is a chance to escape Zero-Sum thinking

President Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden was killed recently and I’ve witnessed an array of emotions.  Some view it in partisan terms, wondering if it will benefit Obama.  Many are celebrating, which is understandable, but some people also understandably feel uncomfortable with the idea of celebrating death, even the death of someone responsible for the murder of thousands.  Personally, I’ve felt both emotions.  Bin Laden was actively plotting more attacks and caused the death of someone I cared about.  If nothing else, the closure that it brings her family is something to feel good about.  Still, reflection and sadness about the circumstance in it’s entirety seems fitting as well.  I can identify with this Wall Street Journal article which details the reaction of someone who lost a brother, saying “my satisfaction with justice tonight is of course mixed with very sad feelings about my younger brother and that justice for him is something he will never of course be able to appreciate.”

I do not begrudge anyone their joy (life is short, enjoy it), but satisfaction and reflection dominate my thoughts as well, when I think about September 11th and the semi-closure that Bin Laden’s death brings.  Some Muslims celebrated September 11th, perhaps influenced by Bin Laden, and some Americans since have wanted revenge on all of Islam.  In a sense, this is all the legacy of Bin Laden’s terrible act on September 11th.  Why did he do what he did and how did he get so many people to join him?  Unlike a serial killer, who may have some weird grasp of reality, Bin Laden actually had to convince a number of sane people to join him in his crimes (perhaps by hypermoralizing them).  He did it by creating an us vs. them, zero-sum mentality with “images of Iraqi children starving under American-led sanctions, of Israeli soldiers manhandling Palestinian women, and of Osama bin Laden, looking messianic in his flowing robes, exhorting his brothers to rise up and end Islam’s humiliation once and for all.”  He wanted a long war divided along religious lines.  Given the risks he took, it is safe to say he was willing to die for such division, or in psychological terms, for the chance to create a zero-sum battle between west and east, where the losses of one side (even the losses of civilians) were a gain to the other.

We should deny him that goal, as that, not just death, would be his ultimate defeat.  One of the oldest findings in social psychology is that superordinate goals create unity.  Killing Bin Laden was one such superordinate goal, shared by Democrats and Republicans, Muslims and Christians.  Rather than worry about who gets credit for this, finding unity in his death would be the ultimate defeat for Bin Laden, whose life was all about sowing division.  As Robert Wright said, on the website for his book about Non-Zero sum thinking, “Killing Osama bin Laden and his kind is one thing. Killing his memes is getting trickier all the time.”  Let’s kill Bin Laden’s zero-sum meme.

- Ravi Iyer

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