I have felt myself cycling through a fairly wide spectrum of emotions and perspectives since hearing about the death of Osama bin Laden late Sunday night, ranging from celebration to sadness to cynicism to retribution to relief—each exhausting in its own way. Adding to the confusion, I think we are simultaneously metabolizing our own personal reactions, as well as those belonging to the ten-year cultural zeitgeist that we are all plugged into—not only are we each trying to figure out our own feelings about the death of Osama bin Laden, but we are also trying to figure out how our emotional responses compare and contrast and fit into the larger collective response that we are experiencing all around us. This can be an incredibly intense experience for many of us, and maybe even a bit confusing as we all struggle to figure out the “right” way to feel about this.
I think that the following questions can help guide us toward a more healthy and Integral response to the death of Osama bin Laden:
- Can our compassion include our violence?
- Can our violence include our compassion?
- Can we understand that the two are not mutually exclusive?
- Can we remain present with the all the contradictions and paradoxes the human heart has to offer us?
- Is our psychological and spiritual umbrella big enough to cover the full range of human emotions triggered by a story like this, rather than trying to isolate a single way to respond or to feel?
- Can we feel both the lower-chakra charge that comes with an undeniable military victory like this, while also feeling the higher-chakra clarity, compassion and equanimity?
- Can we simultaneously respond as patriots of a particular nation, as well as citizens of the world?
- Can we dance in the streets at the very same moment that our hearts are crying in compassion?
The range and variety of responses to Bin Laden’s death reflect the multi-dimensional and multi-layered nature of the 9/11 attack itself. 9/11 was a savage attack against humanity, resulting in the single greatest loss of civilian life ever recorded on American soil. It was also an attack against the economic infrastructure that supports the Western world, intended to provoke a massive military response that would bleed out and eventually bankrupt the U.S economy. What’s more, 9/11 was quite possibly the most effective act of psychological warfare ever inflicted upon the United States. It was a direct attack on the American mythology, an attack on the deeply embedded symbolism that binds us together as an American culture.
(To be clear, 9/11 was not just an attack against America. It was an attack against modern civilization itself, and its effects continue to reverberate all across the globe. However, since this horrifying event took place within U.S. borders, since it was an American military operation that took Bin Laden out, and since we are seeing a tremendous outpouring of emotion in the U.S. in the wake of his death, this post is deliberately focusing upon some of the implications this story has for the American way of life.)
Osama bin Laden knew that the notion of “American Exceptionalism” has nothing to do with an innate sense of superiority on behalf of the American people, but refers to the idea that America is founded upon abstract concepts like liberty, egalitarianism, and individualism, rather than local characteristics like geography, religion, and ethnicity. In other words, he knew that the American identity is manufactured from intangible qualities that can only be sustained and propagated through the shared symbolic matrix that underpins the American way of life—and this symbolic matrix was the true target of the 9/11 attacks. The buildings that were attacked—the two towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—were themselves architectural representations of the strength, scope, and military might of the American Empire, and Bin Laden knew that their destruction would inflict way more damage than any bullet or bomb ever could. Even the numerical date of the attack—9/11—was itself an act of psychological terrorism, perpetuating the sense of panic and emergency every time the phrase is repeated.
Osama bin Laden did not just attack the American people or the American economy, he attacked the American subconscious. Even as we can breathe a sigh of relief that justice has been served and this monster has been finally eliminated from our world, the fabric of our shared American mythos remains as tattered as ever.
Of course, Osama bin Laden has himself become an intrinsic part of our American symbolism. Until just a few days ago he was the 21st-century bogeyman, cackling from the shadows and haunting what’s left of the American Dream. For ten years he’s been public enemy number one to the American amygdala, triggering a nation-wide fight-or-flight reflex (a.k.a. “The War on Terror”) which has already cost the world more than 900,000 lives and several trillions of dollars. Osama bin Laden has played the role of the quintessential “bad guy” for almost a decade—and if we know anything at all about the American mythology, it’s that we love to see the bad guy gunned down by John Wayne at the end of the movie, before he rides off into the sunset and into all the possibilities that lay beyond the horizon of the closing credits. This is why, for many Americans, the news of Osama’s death carries a sense of emotional and cultural closure that would have been very difficult to achieve by any other means, and will hopefully allow the American psyche to begin recovering the dignity, sanity, and stability that have been so seriously compromised in this last decade.
Because the psychological and cultural injuries Osama bin Laden inflicted upon the world were so great, so-called “symbolic victories” like this one (pyrrhic or otherwise) end up having a powerful impact all the way up and down the developmental spiral. Events like these cut through us all, and tend to “light up” different aspects of different people in different ways. As integralists, I think that it is important that we try to understand and accept all of these dimensions and reactions as much as possible—at least insofar as they are expressed in a relatively healthy and non-destructive way. We should simply try to clear out enough space in our hearts to allow any and all emotional reactions to arise within us—even when they seem so painfully contradictory in the moment.
In so doing, we should also allow the full spectrum of emotion to arise within the people around us, and try to refrain from casting judgment upon others’ reactions just because they are not responding the way we would like or expect them to. Of course, “casting judgment” can itself be one of the reactions that we allow to come through us, which is fine as far as it goes—but I think it’s important that we bring just a little extra awareness to this, and try not to get too lost in the many shadows this tends to create. Remember, if you find yourself particularly triggered by someone else’s reaction, whether the charge you feel is positive or negative, there is a very good chance that if you follow it to its source it will lead you to a piece of undigested experience somewhere in your own being.
Maybe you are surprised by the sadness that you are feeling about Osama’s death. That sadness might cause you to feel guilty or treasonous or unpatriotic—after all, Bin Laden has been the predominant face of evil in the 21st century, shouldn’t you be glad that he is dead? But there is no real contradiction here, even it feels like there is one in the moment. In the same way, I also do not relate to media footage of college kids celebrating in the street—young men and women whose entire adolescent lives have been fundamentally defined by the War on Terror—as an affront to compassion. One of the hallmarks of integral consciousness is a staggering capacity to hold and handle paradox, without the need to “choose sides” and reduce the rich complexities and contradictions of reality to one side or another of a simple binary. This capacity for paradox becomes vital in times like these, when the full gamut of ego-centric, ethno-centric, world-centric, and Kosmo-centric reactions come to the surface, both within you and within those around you. And they should all be invited to the table, even as we aspire to widen our circle of care and move toward something much deeper, wider, and better within ourselves. As such, I humbly suggest that we all do our best to be fully present for ourselves, for our friends and family, for our surrounding communities and cultures, for our nations and civilizations, and for each and every concentric ring in our evolutionary mandala.
I invite you all to use this space to explore these questions, to help each other metabolize all the emotional, cultural, political, and spiritual implications of Osama bin Laden’s death, and to collectively decide how to best move forward as Integral citizens of this world.
About Corey deVos
Corey W. deVos is the proverbial "man behind the curtain". He is Editor-in-Chief of Integral Life, as well as Managing Editor of KenWilber.com. He has worked for Integral Institute/Integal Life since Spring of 2003, and has been a student of integral theory and practice since 1996.