THE KILLING OF BIN LADEN AND THE SEARCH FOR MEANING
"The scenes played out on TV and computer screens all across the nation - people spilling into the streets in jubilation over the news that Osama bin Laden had been captured and killed. Some recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Some sang the national anthem. Some clapped. Some cheered."
"For the majority of us, the impact of Sunday night's events will be positive, bringing relief and a form of closure, experts say. But for some of those who were personally touched by the 9/11 attacks, the news may result in a rekindling of symptoms and traumatic memories." (Linda Carroll: "Bin Laden's death may reignite PTSD for some," www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42867361/ns/health-mental_health/from/toolbar, May 3, 2011.)
Reactions to Bin Laden's death have varied from jubilation to reflection to a sense of justice; for some, it is a reliving of pain and PTSD. Some have commented negatively on the spontaneous outbursts of joy on Sunday evening. Most have experienced at least some, perhaps not visible, relief. The veterans I work with have almost universally expressed a sense of joy and relief. One Vietnam veteran expressed pride in the Navy Seals and joy for the younger veterans, but then articulated some envy: "We never really had a sense of closure, or that what we did had a positive ending." Another stated, "The end of the war for us was the evacuation of the Embassy in Saigon and the sight of helicopters being pushed overboard." One younger veteran simply said, "I feel like what we were doing over there had a purpose. We know now that what we did had some good." Another veteran cited all the bad news, questioning the mission, considering articles about warriors who kill themselves, and focusing on the criminal behavior by some soldiers in country or after returning home. The death of Bin Laden was clear, dramatic, sudden - a gift of good news in a society immersed in too much bad news and contention. Party lines evaporated, and a sense of justice, though transitory, was palpable across the nation.
I was reminded of a concept from the early days of treating PTSD: "sealing over." Sealing over puts violence into a meaningful perspective and provides a healthy container for emotional pain. It is the "welcome home" so coveted by returning soldiers. It refers to the gratitude and recognition we give to those who deliver justice or win a war. All the horror has a "seal" that helps the survivor move forward with a little less pain. Taking this concept further, we all search for meaning, especially in the face of loss, ambiguity, unfairness, death, and criminal wrongdoing. Yet, too often we have to accept ambiguity in terms of justice: prolonged trials, eluded capture, a lack of consequences for the perpetrators. Soldiers who have participated in the war on terror have not received a formal "sealing ritual"; however, even though it took almost 10 years, the televised outburst of elation this past Sunday evening made a contribution to the ritual.
Even more profound are the lessons from psychoanalyst and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl. He taught us that we all seek a sense of future, meaning, justice, and purpose. What keeps us going is a yearning for ultimate clarity and meaning; we often need this in order to assume, envision, or trust in a future event. For some, this ultimate meaning might be determined by higher forces or a higher power. Frankl strongly asserted that we want and need to find meaning in suffering. When this happens, as it suddenly did on Sunday evening, most people rejoiced. Even if delayed, even if it lasts for just a fleeting moment, justice delivered swiftly and unambiguously provides a degree of the clarity and relief so desperately needed by those who suffer.
Jerry Boriskin, PHD
Jerry Boriskin is an author, lecturer, and clinician with expertise in trauma, PTSD, and addictive disorders. He began his career in 1979 when PTSD emerged as a diagnosis. In the mid-1980s, he began working with sexual abuse survivors and addicts.
Dr. Boriskin is a pioneer in extending the continuum of care and developed two extended residential treatment programs for co-occurring disorders. A passionate advocate for integrated treatment, he is a licensed psychologist and addiction specialist who recently resumed working with traumatized soldiers at the V.A. of Northern California.
He is the author of "PTSD and Addiction: A Practical Guide for Clinicians and Counselors" and co-authored "At Wit's End: What Families Need to Know When a Loved One is Diagnosed with Addiction and Mental Illness."