Osama bin Laden and America’s Celebration of Death

I am over at Azadnegar Intl. Free News Agency, mulling over the death of Osama bin Laden and, more importantly, America’s reaction to it. Here’s an excerpt (see below). The full article can be accessed over at Azadnegar or at the Tehran Times online.

One of America’s foremost writers, Joan Didion, in a memoir reflecting on the death of her husband (The Year of Magical Thinking, Vintage, 2006), quotes the English anthropologist, Geoffrey Gorer’s words in his book, Death, Grief and Mourning. In that book he writes that Americans (and the British) were pressured by “an ethical duty to enjoy oneself…to treat mourning as morbid self-indulgence, and to give social admiration to the bereaved who hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened.” It is a trend that has been taken to its extreme in this country where not only are the bereaved not expected to mourn publicly, but their public burials are sometimes beset by rabid groups who disrupt the restrained funereal proceedings by shouting slogans that denounce the dead, a strange custom that was recently approved as a “fundamental right” by none other than the Supreme Court of the United States.

For an immigrant American such as myself, whose cultural attitude toward death is clothed not only in deep respect and centuries old traditions but also a communal approach to grief – that this death is not mine alone to bear – it has often been disturbing to be present at the American tradition of memorial services, held long after the funeral is over, where the focus is on a joyful remembrance of the life lived and then a moving on to other business as if that life had never been, all sorrow hidden deep inside the individual. It is as though death is unique and uniquely mourned, that the only expression of emotion that would make the mourner acceptable to society is equanimity if not outright happiness.

How is it, then, that the youth in a country so uncomfortable with death could gather itself together to cheer the death of Osama bin Laden? Is there something about the American conscience, or lack thereof, that makes it impossible for an American to mourn their dead but make it not only possible but, by some accounts lighting up the blogosphere, positively commendable to cheer the death of someone whose crimes they barely remember? And if, as the American media has repeatedly emphasized, particularly during these last few days, Osama bin Laden was American’s Public Enemy #1, could it be that these kids know nothing of how their obscene celebrations might be perceived abroad, or of the people who might support bin Laden and even less as to the reasons why?

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