"Justice has been done." Those were the words spoken by Barack Obama, nearly 3 years ago to the day, upon announcing the assassination of Osama bin Laden. But did this method of "justice" satisfy the American public's need for vengeance?
"Vicarious revenge" involves the desire for justice not being felt solely by victims - or carried out by victims - but by other people of the same group.
In the case of the September 11th attacks in 2001, this need for vicarious revenge was experienced by the American public as a response to terrorist atrocities on an unprecedented scale that resulted in the death of thousands of American citizens.
On May 2nd, 2011, the architect of those attacks - Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden - was killed by US Navy Sea, Air, Land Teams (SEALs).
A content analysis of newspaper headlines on this date revealed that newspapers tended to frame the assassination in terms of justice restoration. The New York Post even ran a headline of "GOT HIM! Vengeance at last! US nails the bastard!"
But did the assassination lend a sense of psychological closure to the public or a notion that justice had been served? And did this act of revenge reduce desires for additional vengeance or increase them?
Does vengeance equal justice?
A team of social psychologists publishes a new study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP), testing the idea "that Americans' vengeful desires in the aftermath of 9/11 predicted a sense of justice achieved after bin Laden's death[...]"
The psychologists believe that bin Laden's death provides a particularly interesting context for examining the psychological processes involved in revenge. At the core of this is a debate as to whether, or under what circumstances, revenge can be considered satisfying, or "sweet."
Understanding this, the psychologists say, will provide meaningful insights into what people expect to achieve by taking revenge.
The SPSP study is the first research to examine how this "sweetness" of revenge might apply to a vicarious context - where vengeance is enacted by people acting on behalf of the victims upon a person widely believed to be responsible for the offenses.
Data gathered in the build-up to the Iraq war in 2003 and after bin Laden's death in 2011
The study participants all completed a survey in 2003, answering questions about desires for vengeance over 9/11 in the context of the build-up to the Iraq War.
They were asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 how they felt the Iraq War would help resolve:
- "A sense of moral outrage about the 9/11 terrorist attacks"
- "The need to wipe out terrorists and those who harbor them"
- "A need to prove that the US cannot be pushed around"
- "A desire to hurt those responsible for the 9/11 attacks"
- "A compelling need for vengeance for the 9/11 attacks."
Although it is now widely accepted that Iraq had no involvement in 9/11, the authors note that - according to polls taken at the time - the majority of Americans believed that Iraq was either directly involved or provided support for the attacks.
Following the death of bin Laden in 2011, the same respondents then rated statements relating to the assassination and whether it provided them with a sense of closure, or of justice having been done.
The researchers found that respondents with the greatest desire for revenge in 2003 were most likely to have a perceived sense of justice after bin Laden's death in 2011. However, these people did not necessarily report feeling a sense of "closure." This group was also the most likely to believe that "a message had been sent" by bin Laden's killing.
The authors say their results imply that "justice" and "closure" are two distinct psychological reactions to retribution.
This is illustrated by a telling finding, that the more that people felt bin Laden's death brought a sense of justice, the more they also expressed desire to further avenge the 9/11 victims.
"Justice seems to fuel a desire for more revenge, whereas psychological closure quenches vengeful desires and decreases pro-war attitudes," the authors write.
No satisfaction for victims from 'accidental justice'
A second part of the study compared the psychological reactions of American, Pakistani and Germans to bin Laden's assassination. Pakistan was chosen because the killing violated the nation's territorial sovereignty and exposed its defensive weaknesses. Germany was chosen due to its relative neutrality in the issue.
The study shows that Americans felt much more satisfaction from bin Laden's death than Pakistanis or Germans. Americans also showed the least satisfaction with a proposed scenario put forward by the researchers in which bin Laden was killed accidentally in a plane crash. Germans showed the most enthusiasm with a scenario in which bin Laden was arrested and put on trial.
The researchers say this difference in "intent" reflects that Americans, after all, were the victims of the 9/11 attacks, whereas Germans only observed the events of 9/11.
"This finding also resonates with results showing that seeing the perpetrator suffer from fate is less satisfactory for victims than taking revenge and delivering a message with it," the authors write. "For less involved parties, however, revenge seems to be satisfactory as soon as a balance in suffering is achieved."