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Last modified: Tuesday, August 23, 2011

When a terrorist dies, closure expectations are revived -- but what is closure?

Jody Lyneť Madeira

America celebrated through the night after President Obama's historic announcement that U.S. Special Forces had killed Osama bin Laden. But other questions dawn in the morning light: Does bin Laden's death provide "closure" for the victims of al Qaeda's many attacks and their families? If so, why and under what circumstances? What exactly is meant by closure?

In popular culture, closure usually means a sense of absolute finality. The promise of closure overshadows certain cultural moments: the conclusions of sensationalized criminal trials and perpetrator deaths through execution or other violent means. It is no wonder that closure in this sense remains elusive for so many; absolute finality after an event as toxic and traumatic as 9/11 is manifestly unrealistic.

I have come to appreciate what closure should be after many hours of interviewing Oklahoma City bombing survivors and victims' family members about whether, how, and why they experienced closure from bomber Timothy McVeigh's 1997 capital trial and 2001 execution. As one survivor explained to me, if you close the door forever on a past event, then you lose the ability to see what is on the other side.

Our focus on closure in and of itself is not the problem; indeed, it is instinctual and healthy. Contemporary popular culture encourages public confession and catharsis, self-introspection, self-improvement, and self-fulfillment. But not all the stories that we want to share can be happy ones. Bad things happen, and we want -- indeed need -- to talk about them. Telling one's story is part of the process of working through difficult issues, a major step on the road to self-fulfillment.

But closure through the eyes of bombing survivors and victims' families bears no resemblance to the rudimentary concept bandied about in popular culture. To enter into the victimization experience is to step into a parallel universe where everything is jumbled and turned upside down, and nothing means what it should. It's like tumbling down the rabbit hole in Louis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland into a terrifyingly strange world where strange phantasms appear and disappear and the Jabberwocky prowls about. Victims' family members and survivors of terrorist attacks have to negotiate this inside-outside-upside-down interior realm at the same time as they go through the motions of daily life back in the workaday world. Mercifully uninitiated into this experience, the rest of us pass by the rabbit hole but rarely recognize it for what it is. Only when we ourselves undergo traumatic experiences -- crime victimization, a loved one's death -- do we sometimes realize the simplicity and unattainability of closure as absolute finality.

But if closure does not implicate such trite phrases as "over and done with" or "put it behind us," then what should it mean? Closure is not some exotic destination to which one eventually travels. If closure exists at all, it must be as a process, a continual series of emotional, psychological, social, and cultural adjustments that a victim makes in response to external, often institutional, developments. Closure involves struggles between self and other, embodiment and disembodiment, agency and passivity, speech and silence. Closure is a narrative journey, a sense-making pilgrimage; we cannot help but seek to narrate, to search for endpoints, for we as humans are and will always be storytellers.

While searching for a way to tell the story of a toxic event, we come to points that could be conclusions of sorts, even if they are not happy, even if sorrow, anger, and trauma persist. We might feel as though we need to experience or witness these moments for ourselves, sitting in the trial gallery during sentencing, viewing Timothy McVeigh's execution, or seeing the actual photos of bin Laden's body or proof of a DNA match. But whatever the endings, closure does not foreclose awareness. Closure opens it -- to suffering, to acceptance, to reconstruction, but always to the story of what was, is, and might be.

The deaths of perpetrators such as Timothy McVeigh and Osama bin Laden can certainly trigger closure, but they are do not guarantee that it will ever arrive. Instead, we who are left alive must still do the heavy lifting, incorporating these moments into our stories and our lives.