9/11 Closure

My brothers Travis and Nick have already done a very good job of describing what a Christian reaction to Bin Laden’s death looks like.  I am going to explore a different aspect of this.  I want to explore the aspect of closure.

One former New York firefighter — forced to retire due to lung ailments suffered as a result of the dust from ground zero — said he was there [at ground zero] to let the 343 firefighters who died in the attacks know “they didn’t die in vain.”

“It’s a war that I feel we just won,” he said. “I’m down here to let them know that justice has been served.”

Bob Gibson, a retired New York police officer, said the news of bin Laden’s death gave him a sense of “closure.”

“I never thought this night would come, that we would capture or kill bin Laden,” he said. “And thank the Lord he has been eliminated.”


And the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. special operations forces may help to start some healing, said Christian and Muslim religious leaders, relatives of victims, and a generation who grew in the shadow of 9/11.

“There is a sense that justice has been done,” said Joel Hunter, senior pastor of the 12,000-member Northland Church in Orlando, Florida, and a spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama.

“There is a scripture, Genesis 9:6, that says, ‘He who sheds man’s blood, by man his blood be shed.’ There is a certain kind of sense of relief that that has been accomplished,” Hunter said.

…Hunter also cited the verse promising that “those who mourn will be comforted,” saying they might “find some sort of solace in this event.”


My question is this: what is closure?  What is justice?  What brings healing after a horrible tragedy like 9/11?

What relationship does the punishment of a crime hold to the healing of the victims of that crime?

I can see some relationship, in the fear of a repeated offense.  An abused child still living in the home of her abuser has little chance for healing.  Even upon removal from the home, any closure or healing she must undergo will often be delayed by fear, but often, healing must continue despite that fear of repeated offense.  To use another example: not every rapist is caught.  Does that mean that those women whose rapists are still “at large” can never find solace or healing?  Of course not.  It may be a longer, more difficult journey, but healing can still take place.

So, let’s bring the metaphor home.  The U.S. was attacked by terrorists.  It responded by taking steps to ensure such an attack could not happen again.  We overthrew two regimes, currently have troops in both those countries, tightened airport security until it’s a hair shy of routine cavity searches, etc.  In other words, as a nation we did all we could to eliminate the fear of a repeated offense.  Up until yesterday, the common cultural image of Osama Bin Laden was of him holed up in a cave somewhere on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, reduced to the level of throwing rocks.

Were we really so afraid of this man the day before yesterday that our fear of him was keeping us from “closure” and “healing” after our pain and grief ten years ago?  I could be wrong, but I didn’t have that impression.

So if not fear, what then?  Well, in psychological terms, when we speak of our need for closure, what we’re often referring to is our need for definite solutions without ambiguity.  A novel with a lot of closure has all loose ends tied up, all characters accounted for, with nothing left for a sequel.  A novel without a lot of closure… must have been written by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Er, I mean, has a more ambiguous ending, loose ends, characters unaccounted for, etc.  In other words, is more like life.

And that, I think, is a worthy point.  That in real life, we never know everything, so we never find true “closure.”

A friend is murdered.  Do we have closure?  The police collar a suspect, but it may not be the actual murderer.  Do we have closure now?  Despite the uncertainty, the suspect who may or may not be the real murderer goes to trial, and is found guilty.  Any closure yet?  The suspect is executed twenty years later.  Do you have closure now?  Of course, the answer is “No” to all those questions–there’s always doubt, always questions, always ambiguity and uncertainty.

This is as true of Bin Laden’s death as it is of the hypothetical situation above.  Questions about whether he was really responsible are only part of the equation–even assuming the standard story, the death of Bin Laden does not necessarily mean the death of al-Quaeda, and the death of al-Quaeda wouldn’t mean the death of terrorism.  For those affected by 9/11, no event short of the Second Coming will ever be enough to remove all ambiguity and questions from the equation.

Robert Fulford said it well:

In the 1990s, closure became part of American legal discourse, most notably in the case of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. When he was convicted, a Texas paper ran a headline, “Verdict brings sense of closure for families.” That easy assumption has always struck me as nonsense. Everyone wants a mass murderer caught, especially the relatives of those murdered, but the idea that a conviction will restore the spirits of the afflicted is dubious. “Closure” was the reason for allowing hundreds of survivors to watch McVeigh put to death. Attorney-General John Ashcroft said it would help those who had lost relatives to “close this chapter in their lives.” Perhaps, or perhaps it rendered the experience, in long-term memory, even more hideous.

Those who think we can manage our feelings about tragedy are usually deceiving themselves. The idea seems to be based on a belief that we can sort our feelings into separate chapters that won’t leak into each other. Nothing in human experience supports that notion. Consciously seeking “closure” is a way of trying to shorten the length of time it normally takes to soften the edges of grief. Everyone can sympathize with this desire without believing that the techniques clustered around the term closure will help.

In 1930, the young Morley Callaghan wrote a novel, It’s Never Over, about a man who is being hanged for murder and the way that event reaches endlessly into the lives of people connected with him. A woman who lost a relative in Oklahoma City gave a reporter a response that made good sense to me. “There is no such thing as closure for people who lost family in the bombing,” she said. “The only closure is when they close the lid on my casket.”
Source, emphasis mine

Closure is a myth.  In reality there is only grief, in all its stages, from denial through acceptance.  But “healing” from a spiritual wound such as that caused by the tragic death of a loved one never means an end to the chapter, and it never means an end to grief.  I have losses twenty years old that are still losses, I’ve just learned to live with them.

So the fact of the matter is, knowing Bin Laden is dead won’t really help the families of 9/11 victims in any major way.  Their long slow progression toward acceptance of their pain is wholly independent of external justice, because the fullness true external justice is not within the abilities of humanity.

“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.”
–Proverbs 24:17


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