The Psychology of Victors

As of May 1st, 2011, arguably the most evil man of the Twenty-First Century is officially eradicated from the face of the earth. It took nearly ten years of concerted effort (excluding the previous decade) in conjunction with the use of numerous resources and the loss of additional American lives, but the mastermind of the murder of thousands of innocent lives has officially experienced justice.

However, the most interesting part in this affair is not the political ramifications of this historic event or even a philosophical discussion about the correct definition of justice – the former would be entirely speculative at this point, and the second would be too in depth to cover in just one article. Instead, what sparks my interest most is the variety of responses that people, even people old enough to remember the initial attacks themselves, have exhibited in the forty-eight hour period immediately following the raid in Abbottabad. The varied responses, rational and irrational, logical and mystical, exemplify very different psychologies in all respects from deeply held values and philosophical beliefs to one’s very perspective on life. It is these psychologies, or at least the predominant ones, that I seek to examine. For the sake of convenience, I will label each with the particular emotion exhibited by members of these groups upon their learning of Osama bin Laden’s death.

Skepticism

This emotional response is the first step that individuals with healthy psychological states ought to take before exhibiting one of the following emotions. Taking what one hears on Facebook or Twitter (or, unfortunately, even “reputable” news outlets nowadays) at face value would represent, at best, the psychology of an imbecile – an individual who becomes convinced of any rumor that his ear happens to catch, or who believes in any snake oil miracle cure that a witch doctor tries to peddle. Even if the skepticism is brief or suppressed (as was the case for the majority of people waiting on President Obama’s address), it is still the mark of a far more stable psyche than possessing absolutely no initial doubt at all.

However, there is always the case in which someone can possess too much of a good thing. Those with the “question everything” attitude easily fall into this category of excessive, intellectually irrational skeptics. Many people found the memes joking about Donald Trump’s invented demands to see bin Laden’s death certificate humorous rather than serious, but that attitude is surprisingly active, mostly amongst the political right.

Before I dwell on these individuals much further, I should define what “irrational skepticism” is. For the purposes of this argument, irrational skepticism (just like irrational acceptance) is a blind faith in an unsupported and largely unreasonable claim or, in this case, in opposition to a supported and reasonable one. Here, the fact that the U.S. government successfully carried out operations on May 1st, 2011 that targeted and killed Osama bin Laden would be the reasonable claim – requiring that the images of the body be broadcast over the television and Internet as proof of bin Laden’s demise or asserting that Osama bin Laden had been killed many days before (if not months or years earlier) is an irrational claim.

“But the government has lied to us before” is usually the first response from those requiring more substantial proof that bin Laden is dead, quickly followed by, “Why wouldn’t they show the body if they have it? And why did they dump it so quickly?” The political implications of showing the body and the government’s explanations for following Islamic tradition are ignored here. Could they be lies? Of course. Are they lies? Not likely, and it is the incredibly minute likelihood that they are lies that makes these assertions irrational.  Suggesting that bin Laden had been killed prior to May 1st displays an even greater amount of faith in the unsupported, namely the incredibly unlikely situation that no news outlet in the world would have picked up on the raid or that no one would have leaked the killing (remember, the news was leaked on the Internet hours before the President ever spoke); upon examining Al-Jazeera’s record in reporting U.S. raids and their results, it is very nearly impossible that such a raid would have stayed silent for so long a time.

Do not have any misunderstandings about what I am saying – I am not arguing for blind faith in the government any more than I am arguing for blind opposition to it. Still, the psychology of the skeptics stems more from a desire for these conspiracy theories to be real than from a desire to determine what is real – a desire to subjectively control reality rather than objectively read it.

The fact that a theory is possible is not enough reason to defend it unfalteringly; it must also be probable. To describe this metaphorically, imagine three men in a low-risk earthquake area. One looks at the probability of an earthquake and declares that it will never happen. The second sees the same probability and states that an earthquake will definitely occur tomorrow (as he does every day). The third looks at the statistic and says that while an earthquake could possibly happen tomorrow, he has little reason to believe that it will. The first two men represent members of the skepticism group: the first is skeptical that any anomaly will ever occur, and the second (the representative of the bin Laden skeptics) denies the very existence of the more likely result. Both perspectives are irrational because, while they both make a claim, they argue for largely unreasonable conclusions without respect to the probability of other claims (note: the acknowledgement of the potential legitimacy of other arguments only applies in weighing the probability of real events in which a definitive outcome is not determined; acknowledging the potential legitimacy of other arguments regarding metaphysical fact or ethics is not acceptable). The third, the rational man, examines the likelihood of each of his options and supports the one that seems most reasonable – he accepts that he could be wrong until a definitive answer is reached, but refuses to accept unsupported claims as “proof” that his is the incorrect stance.

The personal desire to see one’s reality materialize at whim rather than attempt to objectively examine reality as it is (or is likely to be) would be the defining characteristic of the psychology of the irrational skeptics – those who fall into the same category of the lottery addict who is likely to play the lottery his entire life expecting to win each time.

Cynicism

If initial skepticism subsides, one response that could follow is cynicism, i.e., an inherent “mal-appraisal” of the situation. By cynicism, I do not mean admitting that there are still many problems that need to be addressed, but instead I mean a total and absolute inability to see the good in the situation due to a total focus on the negative in other, potentially related ones. The focus of the cynics can swing between any number of factors from the total economic cost of bin Laden’s pursuit, to the human cost, to political misuse of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and even to how the raid was conducted (namely whether we were justified in “infringing” on Pakistan’s sovereignty; we were, but that is another issue).

The psychology of the cynics is not necessarily one spawned from ethical or political philosophies, though they could certainly be contributing factors. Instead, the cynical emotional response stems more from one’s life view. In general, this view is negative: the bad is normal and the good is uncommon, injustice is prevalent and justice is rare, suffering is commonplace and happiness is unlikely. If this relates to one’s natural view of existence (meaning life itself), then cynicism will result in nearly all events of one’s life. If the negative life view stems from the current state of the world (meaning the philosophical degradation and the political implications that follow from it), then one’s cynicism likely only occurs in relation to political events such as bin Laden’s death. In the case of the latter, it is, again, not taking note of the negative that matters, but it is one’s inhibition to appreciate what is positive. (I am not aware of anyone who has tried to argue that Osama bin Laden’s death is a negative thing itself, but that would be an different psychological issue entirely.)

The best way to personify this psychology would be to allude to the stereotype of the strict Asian parent. In this case, let us assume that the child, i.e. the government, is generally unimpressive even by less rigorous standards – remarkably average by all accounts, but by no means bad when compared to other children. The parent, so caught up in the child’s inability to meet the standards that, as of now, no child on earth meets, chastises the child harshly for every decrease in performance but refuses to give him credit for any improvement. Even if the child gets an A in one particular class, let us say P.E., the parent refuses to acknowledge it and only focuses on the shortcomings in other areas.

Essentially, the cynics possess the very apt ability to judge the bad as bad and be disappointed with it (which is psychologically healthy), but they are unable to perceive the good when it does occur, let alone enjoy it.

Mystic Pity

For all intents and purposes, mystic shall mean the unjustified, the unreasonable, the irrational, or the intellectually dishonest (i.e. an individual knows it is one of the previous things, but refuses to admit it); pity can take its normal definition.

Most of us are familiar with this attitude. “He had a family too.” “He was still a person.” “I know he was evil, but we shouldn’t celebrate his death.” This is the psychology of the moral altruist, and this is the response that I despise above all others. Unlike the other psychologies, this one is almost entirely a direct result of an individual’s philosophy, and it is a philosophy that I hate.

Under principles of justice, each man receives what he deserves, no more and no less – there is no room for the unearned going to the undeserving. This justice can be legal, economic (i.e. a free market), or personal (i.e. treatment of others). The mystics of pity, however, wish to usurp justice in the sense that they wish to grant pity, sympathy, and love to those that deserve nothing but contempt, scorn, and hate. Rather than being just and appraising evil as evil, they call evil by adjectives such as “misunderstood” or “unfortunate.” They claim that it is “good for the virtuous to suffer” because it “keeps things in perspective” but lament the death of a mass murderer, rebuking everyone who argues that the virtuous ought to live comfortably and that an absolutely evil man like Osama bin Laden has no right to coexist on earth with us. Justice, philosophically, means nothing to them, crying, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” (Matt. 7:1)

What is interesting is their omission of the directly following verse (at least those who use religion to justify their stances) which reads, “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.” (Matt. 7:2). Or, even later in the same chapter, the most telling verse exemplifies the credo of all the mystics of pity: “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you…” (Matt. 7:12). Key phrase, here: “…the way you want them to treat you…”

I am not condemning the Bible – I am a Christian. Even as I write this, I’m listening to the hymn “Lord Reign in Me” on YouTube, but I am first going to clarify the correct interpretation of these verses for other Christians that may be torn between this emotion and the one directly following it. Many Christians take Matt. 7:1 as a promise that if we do not judge others, God will not judge us – unfortunately, this claim is not supported by the original Greek or by other verses in the Bible. Just because we “judge not” does not at all serve as proof that we are exempt from the judgment of God – saying otherwise would essentially mean that we could do whatever we want in the world, and that God would not judge us so long as we do not judge anyone else for what they do. Citing Romans 2:6 which reads, “God will judge everyone according to what they have done,” [italics mine] I doubt there is anyone who can make a reasonable argument for not judging on the basis that God will not judge us in return.

More likely, this verse was written with relationships between individuals in mind, especially since the following passage deals with judging others hypocritically. Basically, if you do not want to be called out for your faults, do not call out the faults of others. But, the inverse of Matt. 7:1 is also true: “Judge and be judged.” Judge righteously and, according to verse 2, be judged righteously. However, if you judge unjustly, others will judge you unjustly as well. Essentially, Matt. 7:1 explains how one could avoid the judgment of other men, but not the judgment of God. It is advice to avoid conflict, not an edict declaring a new sin (I say “new” because the Old Testament speaks frequently about judging, judging often, and judging fairly; yes, Jesus overturned many things in the Old Law, but seeing that 1 Cor. 2:15 reads, “The spiritual man (man with the Spirit; the righteous man) makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment,” passing judgment is not one of them). I could write an entire book justifying my philosophy with respect to my religion, but I do not have that sort of time, so this will have to suffice as my address to Christians on the matter. I now return to an examination of the mystic psychology in more general terms.

As stated previously, the mystics of pity wish to usurp justice, giving the unearned to the undeserving, but why? Ultimately, it stems from their own fear of receiving what they do deserve and a desire to receive unearned pity and sympathy themselves. It is their declaration to the world that says, “Look! I am extending my love and pity to one of the most evil men conceivable, so please extend your love and pity to me!” If they have not earned love or pity, they hope to receive it by granting it to others who also have not earned it. If they have earned rebuke, they seek to escape from it by withholding their own to those that have also earned it. It is an evasion of reality in the most literal of terms.

Ironically, they judge and condemn those that are happy in bin Laden’s death – this is only an extension of their philosophy. In order to have their vices ignored, they must attempt to silence those that take note of vice (as vice). In order to have their lack of virtue praised, they must belittle the real virtues of others. They are not happy when justice is served because justice is contrary to their desires – justice frustrates their attempt to receive unearned praise and to save themselves from deserved retribution.

Expressing pity for unrepentant, unapologetic, and absolute evil leads to the question of whether one actually values the good. Expressing scorn for those that unabashedly celebrate the fruition of justice leads to the question of whether one actually wants justice. There is no shame in rejoicing in the triumph of good over evil (as stated previously, those that deny this is the case fall into an entirely different psychological category that I did not even bother discussing). The best way to approach the death of Osama bin Laden, or any other comparable evil, is expressed in this quote by Gordon Felt, head of a family group for United Flight 93: “To be quite frank, I am very happy that this man is dead. I was always raised, obviously, never to hope for someone’s death, but I’m willing to make an exception in this case… He was evil personified, and our world is a better place without him.” This leads to the next psychological response:

Pride

Unlike cynicism and mystic pity, pride is a much healthier psychological response to the news of bin Laden’s death (following the initial level of skepticism). The pride I am talking about here was experienced by the vast majority of people, some of the same people that criticize me for it. As many of you felt, it was a self-sustaining feeling of exaltation for that which is right, of deep accomplishment for the attainment of one’s ultimate, rational values (justice), and of unbelievable relief for removing an obstacle set in direct opposition to one’s values. This is the pride I admire, not the mindless boasting of the mediocre or the depraved, nor an unjustified sense of accomplishment when nothing has been achieved.

Even if only in this singular instance, the philosophical values and senses of life of millions of people in the United States meshed in the rational value of justice. Without delving into it too much, values are determined by one’s philosophy and rational values stem from a philosophy rooted in metaphysical reality, i.e., the conditions needed for man’s proper existence. The attainment or loss of one’s values triggers emotional responses with the intensity of the emotion related to it directly correlating with the intensity of the value. (For more information on the relation between values and emotions, I’ll direct you to the third paragraph of my “I love you, because I love myself” article.) Here, the value of bringing justice to a man responsible for the murder of thousands of individuals (not even Americans – he was responsible for the deaths of far more foreign Muslims than any other group of people) was such a blatant metaphysical necessity and such an intensely profound value that very few people had varied responses. Even if this recognition of rational values is not consistent across other issues, most individuals were psychologically healthy enough to correctly take note of the death of a terrorist.

Those in this group felt no pity, and they certainly felt no shame for their pride. They correctly identified that which is good and that which is evil and responded to each appropriately. And, while they may recognize the moral grayness of the whole Middle Eastern debacle, they were able to correctly identify and isolate this event as part of the “good” (moral grayness only means that there are elements of good and bad, black and white, within a larger issue, not that there are actions in which the moral status cannot be determined). They identified that to live requires the defeat of those that do not respect life. They distinguished between initiated force and retaliatory force, in addition to the good of the latter and evil of the former. They believe that justice is the normal and that injustice is fleeting and not the natural state of existence. These individuals are, at least with regard to this issue, psychologically healthy – they do not value that which leads to their own destruction, nor deny reality, nor seek or grant the unearned, nor dwell on the unnatural as the focus of their life.

They may have had no direct, or even indirect, involvement in the events that eventually led to bin Laden’s death, and they may not have had any personal loss in any of his attacks, but their pride is still justified. Just as we can stare up at the Empire State Building and share the pride of its architect, or read the words of the Declaration of Independence and share the pride of its architects, pride results from the recognition of our values and seeing them before us – we do not have to be their creator (though we should act to attain our values), but we can share in the pride because we share the values. Joy is the state proper for man’s living.

Thoughtfulness (“What’s next?”)

The last major response to bin Laden’s death, another rational and healthy reaction, would be to simply ask, “What’s next?” This attitude can be tied to that of the cynics (negatively) and to that of the proud (positively), or it can simply stand on its own (more or less neutrally). With the cynics, this attitude is usually on expressed sarcastically or in exasperation. Alone, this attitude simply displays healthy and active critical thinking skills (although a lack of all emotion, which I have not seen, would be concerning psychologically) and a concern for the course of events from this point on. From the proud, it is expressed as a challenge to the next obstacle that we seek to overcome (personally, I think the budget, the economy, and our involvement in the rest of the Middle East would be appropriate obstacles to address). Usually, this response wasn’t immediate but instead occurred after the initial responses.

Psychologically, it is the correct step to take following a victory (or a defeat, which this is not) – stagnation and complacency with the status quo prevents progress, growth, and further improvements in life and the increased happiness that follows from them. Ultimately, as the hype dies down, this is the psychological state that everyone should (but not everyone will) return to. Questions like, “While bin Laden’s death was good, what are possible negative implications that we should take account of and plan for?” “What should our government’s role be in other issues?” and, “What can I do to improve my life?” should all be asked, considered, and answered.

The benefits of consciousness, i.e. being mentally active, are numerous, as are the threats of unconsciousness, i.e. being mentally inactive/stagnant. There is an element of volition here, and those that choose the option that benefits them are psychologically healthier rather than those that opt for the choice that harms them.

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5 thoughts on “The Psychology of Victors

  1. What I found interesting was the complaints from Arab/Muslim countrymen who complained of some US people celebrating in the street. They found it distasteful, or disrespectful.

    It really shows the ability of some people to self delusion and how people tend to refuse to see any view point but their own.

    Where where these people after the twin towers fell, and Muslims celebrated the deaths of thousands in the streets? When I saw that, all I could think of was “A bit of napalm would go a long way in the right place right now”. Of course, that wouldn’t really help, and likely make things much worse. I guess its a good thing I don’t have presidential powers.

    Personally, I didn’t think Osama’s death deserved celebrating, but thats just my opinion. He’s just one person, he’s dead, goodbye and good riddance. One down, a few more hundred (or thousand) to go.

  2. BTW, I’m a big believer in stamping out the names of people like him from the history books, like they used to do in ancient Rome.

    He, like other serial killers don’t deserve to have their name remembered. Call him “Extremist Muslim Male number 0034321.”

    1. It is a contradictory standard, certainly, and it occurs on both sides. Just as you said, the same people who were silent during the celebrations in the Middle East after attacks on the US or other Western nations are the same ones condemning our doing the same after the death of Osama bin Laden (or the same ones celebrating in those countries are the same ones saying it is inappropriate now). Of course, there is only one rational standard which is correct, and that is the one of celebrating justice – celebrating injustice is distasteful. Unfortunately, the populations of the Middle East are governed by philosophies that distort the meaning of justice, so that definition would mean little to them though you and I can understand the implications.

      I agree with you that he is just one of many, and Islamic fundamentalism will not die with him, but hopefully this will remove any excuses for our continued involvement where we needn’t be. The most astounding result of his death is the recent conversion of many neoconservatives over to a more rational foreign policy – “We got him, so why are we still there?” That is the sort of thinking I hoped to see.

      As for being remembered by history, I think it’s important. History, despite its limitations, ought to be an accurate portrayal of the events, people, and ideas that shape the times they are in. When you take out the name, the face, and the identity of Osama bin Laden, you elevate him to the stature of Greek myth – a disembodied entity capable of extreme atrocities to such an extent that the lessons we should learn from him stop appearing real or relevant after maybe one generation. Because most people are unable to associate Hirohito to Pearl Harbor or the war crimes in the Pacific theatre in World War II, they have lost their resonance; the evils present in Europe under Hitler and Stalin, however, are still remembered and often brought up in political/philosophical conversations (Godwin’s Law, though humorous, is spot on in that respect).

      It is the lesser criminals that should be and ultimately are forgotten simply because they played no major role – I have no doubt that my children will grow up in a world that asks, “Who’s OJ Simpson?” Osama bin Laden, however, will likely not fade away.

  3. There’s an assumption that the people who celebrated when the twin towers were brought down are the same who disapproved the celebration of Osama’s killing. It is extremely unlikely or even impossible that they are the same set of people. Such assumptions clearly show extreme stereotyping and prejudice. You are just assuming that all people from the middle east are alike.

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