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‘Got him’: Revenge, emotions, and the killing of Osama bin Laden

  • Lloyd Cox (a1) and Steve Wood (a2)

The extrajudicial killing of Osama bin Laden (OBL) on 2 May 2011 was greeted with jubilation in the United States. The dominant interpretation of the event – expressed in US media, by US political elites, and on the streets of US cities – was that justice had been served on the perpetrator of the 9/11 atrocity and thereby a great historical wrong had been righted. This article argues that the ‘justice’ deployed was a proxy for revenge, understood as the infliction of harm on those who had inflicted harm on the avenger. The argument is situated in a broader discussion of the emotional topography on which acts of state revenge are politically premised. The bin Laden case is used to explore some issues raised by the growing literature on emotions in politics and International Relations including, most importantly, how emotions are collectivised and made public.

Corresponding author
*Correspondence to: Lloyd Cox, Politics and International Relations Department, Macquarie University, Sydney 2109, NSW, Australia. Author’s email:
** Correspondence to: Steve Wood, Politics and International Relations Department, Macquarie University, Sydney 2109, NSW, Australia. Author’s email:
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1 The White House, ‘Remarks by the President on Osama bin Laden’ (1 May 2011), available at: {} accessed 21 July 2014.

2 BBC News, US and Canada, ‘Osama Bin Laden’s Death: Political Reaction in Quotes’, available at: {} accessed 21 July 2014.

3 The front page coverage of 796 newspapers from 77 countries, including this headline from the New York Post and 400 other US newspapers, can be found on the online public collection at: {} accessed 21 July 2014.

4 Gallup Poll, available at: {}; CNN, ‘Response to bin Laden’s Death’, available at: {} accessed 21 July 2014.

5 Lieven, Anatol, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (2nd edn, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 4 .

6 Löwenheim, Oded and Heimann, Gadi, ‘Revenge in international politics’, Security Studies, 17:4 (2011), pp. 685724 . Cf. Ross, Andrew A. G.Realism, emotion, and dynamic allegiances in global politics’, International Theory, 5:2 (2013), pp. 273299 , for a persuasive argument that the classical realism of Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr, as opposed to later neorealist accounts, provides important insights into the role of emotions in international politics.

7 Kim, Sung Hee and Smith, Richard, ‘Revenge and conflict escalation’, Negotiation Journal, 9:1 (1993), pp. 3743 . Many view such acts as manifestations of a moral failing. For a discussion of the legal and moral complexities, see Berkowitz, Roger, ‘Assassinating justly: Reflections on justice and revenge in the Osama bin Laden killing’, Law, Culture and the Humanities, 7:3 (2011), pp. 346351 . Berkovitz argues that this was an act of revenge, though one that can be justified.

8 To say that it was an act that was ‘emotionally driven’ does not preclude that act from also having instrumental political motives, and rational planning. Indeed, the binary oppositions between emotion and rationality, and feeling and thought, which dominates much Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinking has often obscured more than it has illuminated. Modern neuroscience suggests that emotion/feeling and cognition/rationality are inextricably fused, and that trying to separate them is like ‘trying to slice a cake into the flour and sugar that went into it’. Zaki, Jamil and Ochsner, Kevin, ‘You, me, and my brain: Self and Other representations in social and cognitive neuroscience’, in Alexander Todorov, Susan T. Fiske, and Deborah A. Prentice (eds), Social Neuroscience: Toward Understanding the Underpinnings of the Social Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 1439 . On revenge as acts of ‘negative reciprocity’, see Lowenheim and Heimann, ‘Revenge in international politics’, p. 686. On ‘rational’ revenge, see Hamlin, Alan, ‘Rational revenge’, Ethics, 101:2 (1991), pp. 374381 .

9 Emma Hutchison and Roland Bleiker view this question as ‘the key challenge facing international relations’ emotions scholars’. See Hutchinson, Emma and Bleiker, Roland, ‘Theorizing emotion in world politics’, International Theory, 6:3 (2014), pp. 491514 (p. 497).

10 Mercer, Jonathon, ‘Feeling like a state: Social emotion and identity’, International Theory, 6:3 (2014), pp. 515535 . This builds on earlier work by the same author. Mercer, Jonathon, ‘Human nature and the first image: Emotion in international politics’, Journal of International Relations and Development, 9:2 (2006), pp. 288303 .

11 In doing so, we draw on literature that explores emotions and International Relations. As Ty Solomon states, ‘It can no longer be claimed that the field of International Relations (IR) neglects the role of affects and emotions.’ Solomon, Ty, ‘“I wasn’t angry, because I couldn’t believe it was happening”: Affect and discourse in responses to 9/11’, Review of International Studies, 38:4 (2012), pp. 907928 (p. 907). See also, Ross, Andrew A. G., Mixed Emotions: Beyond Fear and Hatred in International Conflict (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2014).

12 Evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and primatologists have observed revenge-like behaviour in other animals. Eminent primatologist Frans de Waal argues that in groups of chimpanzees a ‘system of revenge’ grew out of transgressions of reciprocity norms that constitute the foundations of that species’ sociality. de Waal, Frans, Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996). Whether or not these behaviours are actually revenge or the anthropomorphic projections of researchers is a moot point. The desire to inflict harm when oneself or one’s in-group has been or is perceived to have been harmed however is universal in human societies, even if some individuals have learned, so to speak, to turn the other cheek.

13 Canetti, Elias, Masse und Macht (30th edn, Frankfurt: Fischer, 2006), p. 55 .

14 See, for example, Boehm, Christopher, Blood Revenge: The Anthropology of Feuding in Montenegro and Other Tribal Societies (Lawrence, KS: Kansas University Press, 1984) and Chagnon, Napoleon A., ‘Life histories, blood revenge, and warfare in a tribal population’, Science, 239 (1988), pp. 985992 .

15 This distinguishes revenge from simple retaliation. Elster similarly defines revenge as ‘the attempt, at some costs or risk to oneself, to impose suffering upon those who have made one suffer, because they have made one suffer…’. Elster, Jon, ‘Norms of revenge’, Ethics, 100:4 (1990), pp. 862885 (p. 862). While sympathetic to much of Elster’s analysis, ‘suffering’ sets the bar too high as a motivator for and an aim of revenge. Making it central to the definition excludes human behaviour not easily classified as anything other than revenge. Hence, we prefer the more expansive term ‘harm’.

16 Löwenheim and Heimann, ‘Revenge in international politics’, pp. 695–6.

17 Turney-High, Harry, Primitive War (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1949), pp. 149150 .

18 See, for example, Gollwitzer, Mario, Meder, Milena, and Schmitt, Manfred, ‘What gives victims satisfaction when they seek revenge?’, European Journal of Social Psychology, 41 (2011), pp. 364374 ; Western, Drew, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (New York: Public Affairs 2007), p. 79 ; Knutson, Brian, ‘Sweet revenge?’, Science, 305 (2004), pp. 12461247 ; de Quervain, Dominique et al., ‘The neural basis of altruistic punishment’, Science, 305 (2004), pp. 12541258 .

19 Saying that such emotions are ‘deeply felt’ does not imply the mind/body and rational/irrational dualism that has bedeviled so much thinking in the humanities and social sciences. Rather, it implies that: (i) these notions are so culturally ingrained that reactions to their transgression appear as largely sub-conscious, spontaneous, and intellectually unelaborated; and (ii) that they have a visceral aspect. That is, their transgression incites emotions that are experienced as bodily sensations by particular persons. Both senses of ‘deeply felt’ were – as attested to by the polling cited below – experienced by hundreds of millions of Americans on and after 9/11 and when OBL’s killing was announced.

20 Löwenheim and Heimann, ‘Revenge in international politics’, p. 694.

21 We are not saying that the triggers for and expressions of these emotions are universally the same. Shame, humiliation, and anger are invariably associated with revenge, but what causes them and how they are expressed is always culturally grounded, as we argue below.

22 This literature is large, growing, and multidisciplinary. Notable contributions include Fattah, Khaled and Fierke, K. M., ‘A clash of emotions: the politics of humiliation and political violence in the Middle East’, European Journal of International Relations, 15:1 (2011), pp. 6793 ; Linklater, Andrew, ‘Anger and world politics: How collective emotions shift over time’, International Theory, 6:3 (2014), pp. 574578 ; Wright-Neville, David and Smith, Debra, ‘Political rage: Terrorism and the politics of emotion’, Peace and Security, 21:1 (2009), pp. 8598 .

23 Wolf, Reinhard, ‘Respect and disrespect in international politics: the significance of status recognition’, International Theory, 3:1 (2011), pp. 105142 ; Fattah and Fierke, ‘A clash of emotions’; Scheff, Thomas J., Bloody Revenge: Emotions, Nationalism and War (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994). Of course, not all instances of shame and humiliation motivate feelings of revenge, even though revenge is invariably associated with shame and humiliation.

24 Wolf, ‘Respect and disrespect’, p. 105, cites Thomas Friedman’s observation that ‘The single most underappreciated force in international relations is humiliation.’

25 Saurette, Paul, ‘You dissin me? Humiliation and post 9/11 global politics’, Review of International Studies, 32:3 (2006), pp. 495522 (p. 509).

26 Scheff, Bloody Revenge, pp. 4, 9–55, presents evidence suggesting that not only is there ‘a strong affinity between shame and anger’, but that anger is invariably preceded by shame and/or humiliation.

27 Elster, Jon, Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 65 .

28 Mercer, ‘Feeling like a state’.

29 While culture and identity are analytically distinguishable, a discussion of one inevitably involves invoking the other. For this reason, we have modified Mercer’s original sketch by dealing with culture and identity together, as mutually constitutive phenomena that shape and are shaped by human emotion.

30 Our understanding of culture draws on the excellent discussions in Ulin, Robert C., Understanding Cultures: Perspectives in Anthropology and Social Theory (2nd edn, Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 2001), and Wolf, Eric R., Envisioning Power: Ideologies of Dominance and Crisis (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999).

31 The notion of ‘dispositions’ is extensively deployed in the work of Pierre Bourdieu. See Bourdieu, Pierre and Wacquant, Loic, An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992).

32 See the excellent contributions in Goodwin, Jeff, Jasper, James M., and Polletta, Francesca (eds), Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2001) and Barbalet, Jack (ed.), Emotions and Sociology (London: Basil Blackwell, 2002).

33 Parkinson, Brian, ‘Emotions are social’, British Journal of Psychology, 87:4 (1996), pp. 663683 .

34 At one level of abstraction, the physical and psychic states attending emotions have internal, physiological causes. But at another level, those same emotions are caused by events and stimuli whose sources are outside individual human bodies. Hence, as Mercer argues, while emotions depend on human bodies for their expression, they are not ‘ontologically’ reducible to bodies, just as human minds are dependent on but not ontologically reducible to human brains. Consequently, group level emotion ‘is no more dependent on a group body than ideational structures are dependent on a group brain’. Mercer, ‘Feeling like a state’, p. 521.

35 Hutchinson and Bleiker, ‘Theorizing emotions in world politics’, p. 501.

36 Ross, Mixed Emotions, p. 10. Contagion theory can be traced to Gustave Le Bon’s classic study on crowds, Psychologie des Foules (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1905 [orig. pub. 1895]).

37 Neumann, Roland and Strack, Fritz, ‘“Mood contagion”: the automatic transfer of mood between persons’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79:2 (2000), pp. 211223 ; Barsade, Sigal G., ‘The ripple effect: Emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior’, Administrative Science Quarterly, 47 (2002), pp. 644675 ; Hatfield, Elaine, Cacioppo, John T., and Rapson, Richard L., Emotional Contagion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

38 ‘Emotional contagion’, ‘emotional mimicry’, ‘perspective taking’, and ‘empathy’ are terms that have been deployed, often imprecisely, to refer to the phenomenon of people taking on the emotions of others. For an excellent discussion of the subtleties of these concepts, see Hess, Ursula, Haude, Stephen, and Fischer, Agneta, ‘Do we mimic what we aee or what we know?’, in Christian von Scheve and Mikko Salmela (eds), Collective Emotions: Perspectives from Psychology, Philosophy and Sociology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 94107 .

39 Mercer, ‘Feeling like a state’, p. 524.

40 Hatfield, Elaine, Carpenter, Megan, and Rapson, Richard L., ‘Emotional contagion as a precursor to collective emotions’, in von Scheve and Salmela (eds), Collective Emotions, p. 109 .

41 Hess, Haude, and Fischer, ‘Do we mimic what we see or what we know?’, p. 95.

42 Doherty, William, ‘The emotional contagion scale: a measure of individual differences’, Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 21:2 (1997), pp. 131154 .

43 Benski, Tova and Fisher, Eran, ‘Introduction: Investigating emotions and the Internet’, in Tova Benski and Eran Fisher (eds) Internet and Emotions (New York: Routledge, 2014), pp. 116 .

44 A striking example is Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph of Vietnamese child Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing after being burned by napalm, which appeared on the cover of The New York Times the day after the event. It prompted a horrified outpouring of outrage across the US and beyond, sealing Congressional resolve to end appropriations for further US involvement in the Vietnam War.

45 Propagandists have recognised the emotive power of the spoken word, as disseminated through radio, since the 1920s. Joseph Goebbels and Franklin Roosevelt both drew upon techniques that had been recently pioneered in radio advertising, such as the use of music and subliminal appeals.

46 We say more predictable because the emotions involved in much face-to-face contact is spontaneous, and thus subject to the unexpected and contingent. Producers, directors, image makers, and the like are able to frame the virtual realities that they create, and make choices about what to include and exclude in order to elicit particular emotions.

47 Newell, Terry, ‘The contagion of national anger’, The Huffington Post (6 September 2014), available at: {} accessed 15 April 2016. The ethics of this research was questionable and condemned by many, as it did not have the informed consent of research subjects. But its conclusions were in keeping with other findings on emotional contagion, and with much of what is already known about the manipulation of consumer emotions in the advertising industry.

48 Doherty, ‘The emotional contagion scale’, p. 134, identifies these differences as arising from ‘susceptibility’ to emotional contagion, which he suggests may ‘be measured as the frequency with which emotional stimuli elicit an emotional expression characteristic of the eliciting emotion’. He develops a scale of these measurable differences.

49 Wood, Steve, ‘Prestige in world politics: History, theory, expression’, International Politics, 50:3 (2013), pp. 387411 .

50 Mercer, ‘Feeling like a state’, p. 524.

51 Harold Laswell argued that political charisma is the coincidence of a leader’s psychic makeup, manifested in a political programme, with emotional receptors amongst the public. See Laswell, Harold, Psychopathology and Politics (New York: Viking Press, 1960 [orig. pub. 1930]). In Making the Fascist Self: The Political Culture of Inter-war Italy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), Mabel Berezin elaborated on the notion of a ‘community of feeling’, which she deploys to great effect for understanding fascist Italy and political charisma more generally. Recent pertinent work in psychology includes Bono, Joyce and Ilies, Remus, ‘Charisma, positive emotions, and mood contagion’, The Leadership Quarterly, 17:4 (2006), pp. 317334 .

52 Scheff, Bloody Revenge, pp. 87–9. Reich, Wilhelm, Massenpsychologie des Faschismus (Copenhagen: Verlag für Sexualpolitik, 1933).

53 In the days after the killing a debate developed around the legality and justice of state assassinations. Nevertheless, alternative voices were drowned out by the dominant ‘justice has been done’ frame, with justice implicitly understood as the exacting of revenge. For alternative interpretations see Geoffrey Robertson, ‘Bin Laden Should Have Been captured, Not Killed’, available at: {} accessed 7 October 2014; Noam Chomsky, ‘The Revenge Killing of Osama bin Laden’, available at: {} accessed 7 October 2014; Marcus Elliot, ‘The Killing of Osama bin Laden – Justice or Revenge?’, available at: {} accessed 7 October 2014.

54 The White House, ‘Remarks by the President on Osama Bin Laden’ (1 May 2011), available at: {} accessed 21 July 2014.

55 In response to 9/11, President Bush addressed the nation with: ‘… this act will not stand; we will find those who did it; we will smoke them out of their holes; we will get them running and we’ll bring them to justice.’ The White House, ‘Remarks by the President, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft’ (15 September 2001), available at:

{} accessed 21 July 2014.

56 For an account of the emotional consequences (for the perpetrator) of acting out or even planning revenge, see Gollwitzer, Mario, Meder, Milena, and Schmitt, Manfred, ‘What gives victims satisfaction when they seek revenge?’, European Journal of Social Psychology, 41:3 (2011), pp. 364374 .

57 BBC News, US and Canada, ‘Osama Bin Laden’s Death: Political Reaction in Quotes’, available at: {} accessed 21 July 2014.

58 Ibid.

59 The front-page coverage of 796 newspapers from 77 countries, including 401 US newspapers, can be found at: {}. All US newspapers presented the killing as a cause for national celebration.

60 Bowman, Nicholas, Lewis, Robert Joel, and Tamorini, Ron, ‘The morality of May 2, 2011: a content analysis of U.S. headlines regarding the death of Osama bin Laden’, Mass Communication and Society, 69:5 (2014), pp. 639664 (p. 656).

61 Gollwitzer, Mario, Skitka, Linda, Wisneski, Daniel, Sjostrom, Arne, Liberman, Peter, Nazir, Syed Javed, and Bushman, Brad, ‘Vicarious revenge and the death of Osama bin Laden’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40:5 (2014), p. 604 .

62 Gallup Poll, available at: {} accessed 21 July 2014.

63 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, ‘Public “Relieved” by bin Laden’s Death, Obama’s Job Approval Rises’, available at: {}; New York Times/CBS News Poll, available at: {} accessed 21 July 2014.

64 For example, Christof Heynes, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, and Hans Corell, former Legal Counsel to the United Nations, argued that the killing of OBL did not satisfy the demands of legality under international law. Cited in Rebecca Rose, ‘Bin Laden Killing: Justice or Revenge?’, available at: {} accessed 9 September 2014.

65 Bloom, Sandra L., ‘Commentary: Reflections on the desire for revenge’, p. 64 .

66 Two days after the killing, White House Spokesman, Jay Carney, confirmed that OBL had been unarmed at the moment of his death. See Ross, Brian and Farran, Lee, ‘Osama Bin Laden Unarmed When Killed, White House Says’, available at: {} accessed 7 October 2014.

67 After a trove of material had been recovered from bin Laden’s compound, retired US intelligence official Paul Pillar stated that, ‘As a matter of leadership of terrorist operations, bin Laden has really not been the main story for some time.’ He continued, ‘The instigation of most operations has been at the periphery not the center – and by periphery I’m including groups like AQAP [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] but also smaller entities as well.’ See, ‘Al Qaida after Osama bin Laden’s Death’, available at: {} accessed 14 August 2014.

68 If the operation had failed and US personnel been killed, there would have been immense ramifications for the Obama White House, like the failure to rescue American hostages in Teheran had for the Carter White House in 1980.

69 For a classic treatment of American exceptionalism, see Lipset, Seymour Martin, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997). More recent discussions include Brook, Steven, American Exceptionalism in the Age of Obama (New York: Routledge, 2014), and Soderlind, Sylvia and Taylor Carson, James (eds), American Exceptionalism: From Winthrop to Winfrey (New York: State University of New York Press, 2011). For a critique see Hodgson, Godfrey, The Myth of American Exceptionalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

70 The depth, breadth, and intensity of this belief can be gauged from public responses to real or perceived divergence from the script of American exceptionalism. For example, when President Obama’s comments to a reporter in 2009 were (wrongly) interpreted as eschewing American exceptionalism, he faced a political backlash: ‘I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.’ A close reading of the entire passage demonstrates Obama’s defence rather than rejection of American exceptionalism, and hence a conforming to rather than violation of one of the key axioms of American political culture. Available at: {} accessed 12 August 2015.

71 A 2010 poll confirmed that 80 per cent of Americans believed the US has a ‘unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world’. Sixty-six per cent agreed that the US had a ‘special responsibility to be the leading nation in world affairs’. See {} accessed 22 August 2015.

72 Saurette, ‘You dissin me?’, p. 517.

73 While some would distinguish between retribution and revenge – with the former implying more measured, and less emotionally charged actions – Saurette uses the terms synonymously.

74 Saurette, ‘You dissin me?’, pp. 512, 518.

75 See, for example, Ducat, John, The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2004); Weber, Cynthia, Faking It: US Foreign Policy in a Post-Phallic Era (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

76 There is a spectrum of idealised masculinity, with George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Lyndon Baines Johnson personifying the hyper-masculine ideal type, and Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama conforming less to that. Even the latter two had to periodically burnish their masculine credentials with tough talking and action. The fate of Presidential candidates Michael Dukakis and John Kerry, both painted as effeminate, underlines the point.

77 Collins, Randall, ‘Rituals of solidarity and security in the wake of terrorist attack’, Sociological Theory, 22:1 (2004), pp. 5387 .

78 Simpson, David, 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2006). Also see Jarvis, Lee, ‘Remember, remember, 11 September: Memorializing 9/11 on the Internet’, Journal of War and Cultural Studies, 3:1 (2010), pp. 6982 .

79 Carnagey, Nicholas and Anderson, Craig, ‘Changes in attitudes towards war and violence after September 11, 2001’, Aggressive Behavior, 33:2 (2006), pp. 118129 , cite an increase in self-reported ‘aggression, anger, and hostility’ after 9/11; Michael Greenberg, Peyton Craigill, and Alexandra Greenberg observe that in the month after the attack around a third of Americans reported being ‘often’ angry. Greenberg, Michael, Craigill, Peyton, and Greenberg, Alexandra, ‘Trying to understand behavioral responses to terrorism’, Human Ecology Review, 11:2 (2004), pp. 165176 .

80 Hall, Todd H. and Ross, Andrew A. G., ‘Affective politics after 9/11’, International Organization, 69:4 (2015), pp. 847879 .

81 Much of this material, especially of the main television networks, is still available on the Internet.

82 Cameras attached to the helmets of the navy seal assassins captured images of the killing, beamed by satellite to the White House where a captivated President Obama and his national security team looked on in real time.

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