No sooner did the Navy Seals depart from Bin Laden’s compound, the argument about our reaction to the spectacular operation that resulted in killing him hit every communication mode with tsunami force. Was the joy displayed by young people in front of the White House and at Ground Zero appropriate? Was it excessive? Was any expression of joy “barbaric”? Should have the commandos bring him back alive and put him through our legal system?


I openly and joyfully admit that I was elated when I heard the news. The SOB killed over 3,000 innocent people at the Twin Towers, and was the spiritual and strategic inspiration for the slaughter of tens of thousands more. This puts him in a class of criminality and sheer evil shared by other genocidal characters that deserve the death penalty, regardless of one’s ideological attitude about it. Eichmann comes to mind. Despite the ban on capital punishment, Israel reserved a special privilege for this mass murder.

There are great risks in this collective sense of euphoria. There is a thin line separating admiration for a job well done, to the belief of invincibility, of American Exceptionalism (whatever that means), of disdain for the rule of international law. The difference between the joy of genuine patriotism and the gloating of jingoistic nationalism can be subtle.

In 1967 Israel was faced with three armies massing on its borders, proclaiming their goal of extinguishing the life of the nineteen year old state and its people, about half of them holocaust survivors and their children. This was literally an existential threat, and the country sank into deep anxiety and despair. Then came the lightening blow the Israeli army dealt the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian armies; they were annihilated in six days. The joy far exceeded the feeling of revenge; it was a feeling of an unexpected redemption at the very last minute before a massive slaughter doomed them all. To many, it was a religious experience, a biblical miracle. But very quickly this elation at sheer survival gave way to  jingoistic militarism and hallucinatory talk of this tiny country being an invincible power. Religious right wing extremists appropriated and expropriated land that belonged to local Palestinian farmers, because they could, and because they felt bound by the law of God as they interpreted it, not by the earthly laws of mere mortals.

This is the risk. We should always keep it in mind when we enjoy a well-deserved success.

What does Science Say?

As early as 1809, Darwin postulated that natural selection acts on two levels: the individual level, and the group level. As he put it, moral men might not do any better than immoral men but tribes of moral men would certainly “have an immense advantage” over fractious bands of pirates.

In a word, on the social level it pays to be altruistic. The familiar examples of the beehive and the ant and termite colonies have become clichés. Here we have societies that sociality is literally in their DNA and is enforced chemically through pheromones.  We humans are somewhat different. We are social animals, but our sociality is not as rigorously enforced by the pheromonal grip of chemical control, and it is overlaid on selection on the individual level, which promotes a less altruistic, more competitive behavior. This creates a conflict between the deeply embedded individual pattern of behavior, and the more fragile “tribal” behavior.

How does it translate to human behavior?

The sociologist Émile Durkheim, quite independently of any evolutionary thinking, arrived at a remarkably similar conclusion. As Jonathan Haidt, the moral psychologist, has written in the NYT (May 8, 2011),

 He (Durkheim) contrasted two sets of “social sentiments,” one for each level. At the lower level, sentiments like respect and affection help individuals forge relationships with other individuals. But Durkheim was most interested in the sentiments that bind people into groups — the collective emotions. These emotions dissolve the petty, small-minded self. They make people feel that they are a part of something larger and more important than themselves.

One such emotion he called “collective effervescence”: the passion and ecstasy that is found in tribal religious rituals when communities come together to sing, dance around a fire and dissolve the boundaries that separate them from each other. The spontaneous celebrations of last week were straight out of Durkheim.

Case closed? Not quite. Science is attempting to only explain phenomena, without attaching value judgments to its findings. The latter is the realm of philosophy and one’s individual “taste”. I for one, felt great elation tinged with the liberating sense of revenge. Quite similar to what I felt when Eichmann was captured or when the Entebbe operation was executed with awe-inspiring skill and courage. But I have to admit that the crowd chanting” U.S.A, U.S.A” left me  a bit apprehensive about what that phrase meant to them: was it pride in flawless execution by “our boys”? Or was it an expression of nationalistic “Exceptionalism”?

As I said, it boils down to personal taste. The “celebration” below is more to my taste.


Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


  1. I feel like using Durkheim’s lens of collective effervescence to explain the widespread euphoria is a tad misguided, if only because this behaviour can’t be really related to religion (although some people might relate it to Christianity as opposed to Islam, but that is a tenuous connection at best). The term collective effervescence comes from /The Elementary Forms of Religious Life/, where in context it is used to describe the euphoria of groups engaging in a specifically /religious/ event that cements not only their collective unity, but also belief in the existence of another, sacred reality. His definition of religion “is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into a single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”

    If we in turn take the terms he uses quite loosely, we could possibly fit American politics into them, but it would be a real stretch I think =P Not that the behaviour of people during this whole “Osama’s Dead!” thing can’t possibly be understood in any way by looking at Durkheim’s work, but before we can use specific terms we’ve got to make sure to define them. That’s all I’m saying.

    Unrelatedly, but out of curiosity, do you accept guest contributions?

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