Celebrating Death & Violence: Is It Ever Good?

A few years back, I was in Santa Fe during the Zozobra Festival, and everyone told me it was a must-do Santa Fe cultural tradition. So I went, expecting to laugh, have a glass of wine, and let loose. Then I got there and saw the 10-story Zozobra, an effigy of a man who the townspeople had stuffed with all the negativity they wanted to release for their lives that year. Divorce papers, letters, and lists of stuff that no longer served them made up the stuffing inside this giant man with a scary face that looked shockingly like the Joker in Batman, with a mouth that opened and closed while someone with a microphone eerily howled, “OOohhhhh…ooohhhh….AHHHHOOOAHHH” — like he was a ghost in pain.

The ceremony was culturally curious — music, fire dancers, and other entertainers shared the stage with the Zozobra. But there was a darkness to the whole thing. Something ominous in the energy. I started to feel uncomfortable, and the celebratory feeling I started with began to wear off.

Then the “OOohhhing and AHHing” got louder and the fire dancers danced in, getting dangerously close to the Zozobra’s leg, and every time they got close, he cried out, as if he had been burned.

Power of the crowd

The crowd started cheering. “BURN HIM! BURN HIM! BURN HIM!” And the drums were beating and the music was thrumming and people started throwing angry fists into the air and rushing the stage. You could feel the palpable collective angst, the mass anger, the culmination of a year’s worth of crap, as they prepared to light the Zozobra on fire.

In the midst of this Fellini-like scene, I began to weep. Something just felt wrong. I wanted to leave — like, now.

Amidst the screams, I piped up, “SAVE THE ZOZOBRA!”

But the guy next to me was like “But the Zozobra is toxic. He’s nothing but bad. He’s full of all of our shit. When we burn him, we get rid of all that evil.”

And I said, “Then please don’t make him look like a man with a voice whom you’re hurting.”

And then, to the tune of the horrifying screams of the paper mache, paper, and wood man, the fire dancers ignited him. And the people started to cheer, all the while screaming, “BURN HIM! BURN HIM!”

And the Zozobra began to scream, like blood-curdling, “I’m dying” bellowing. And the tears flowed down my face as the people jumped up and down all around me, moving in closer to the stage as the heat from the fire grew. And I got caught up in the crowd as they rushed me, and I thought, “Am I missing something here? Is this supposed to feel different than it does?”

But I went along with the crowd.

And then the Zozobra caught fully on fire, and his face started to melt, and he cried louder and louder, until his cries dimmed down to a whimper, and then you couldn’t see his face anymore. And then his voice stopped.

And wild applause broke out as people started shouting, “Down With Zozobra!” Fireworks shot off overhead.

Can we release without violence?

And I stood there, crying, as people chanted and pumped their fists. And I couldn’t help wondering, “Is this what the crucifixion of Christ felt like?” And I felt heart-broken, not so much because the Zozobra was going down — after all, I understand the power of a good release ceremony, and I include a similar burning of what no longer serves you exercise in my Get Out of Your Own Way e-course. No, I cried because of the mass anger and the visceral feeling of what it must have felt like to witness Jesus dying — or witches burned at the stake — or the mass murdering of other innocent people some considered “evil.”

Now I’m not equating Osama bin Laden and Jesus. One was the devil and one was the son of God. And I’m not equating the Zozobra with Jesus. After all, one was a man and one was a paper mache sculpture. But I am suggesting that it’s confusing — this celebration of death and violence, this rush of hatred spewed out in the name of fighting evil, this overpowering outpouring of vindictive “eye for an eye” rationalization of death and violence.

Some people celebrate when a criminal is put to death. I think that’s vile, no matter how evil their crime. And yes — this crime is beyond words. It’s the worst thing that’s happened to this country in my lifetime. And I pray nothing like it will ever happen again.

But does it deserve a party? No. I don’t think so. A sigh of relief? Yes. A moment of silence? Yes. Some healing tears? Yes. But people spewing hatred? Nope. It just doesn’t feel right to me.

Which is why my heart is so heavy this week as I watch Americans gleefully celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. (I wrote about my feelings on his death here.). I see the Daily News headlines that say, “ROT IN HELL” and the “Go Team USA!” propaganda being spewed out by our politicians. And it breaks my heart even more than watching a paper mache man burst into flames.

Four people died in the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Yes, I feel relieved that this bastion of evil is gone. But is death — even justified death meant to protect innocent victims — really cause for celebration, no matter how vile the person who died is? Now I understand that many are celebrating justice and freedom from more death and oppression, just as people rejoiced when Hitler died.  But when we revel in the streets, don’t we only incite the zealots in the Middle East who long to take us down one freedom fighter at a time? When they read our headlines, don’t we only invite more death and oppression?

Celebrating murder

In my opinion, the Zozobra Festival would have been exceedingly powerful if the paper mache sculpture depicted a flower. Or a stone. Or a tree. Or at least something that didn’t have a voice. At that festival, we could have experienced the tension relief and toxic residue release in a respectful way that honored us all. Why must we celebrate death and violence of a man- even a paper mache man- in order to heal? Can’t we feel relieved, lick our wounds, move on, and do so in a way that isn’t so hateful and in your face? Can’t we release — with love, instead of with hate? Wouldn’t a candlelight vigil be more healing than spewing venom?

On a Bay area radio station, the radio DJ was going off, relishing and preening about the death of bin Laden in a very hardcore way, and a woman called up and asked them to consider the fact that they were talking about someone’s death, and could there be an opening there for some compassion? Right on the air, he said, “Suck my sperm you terrorist loving sh*thead” Blah blah blah.

Is this really necessary? Must we be so violent and hateful about the whole thing?

Someone on Twitter called me unpatriotic and told me I didn’t deserve to live in the US because of what I was tweeting. Someone else told me she had no idea I loved terrorists- and unfollowed me. I was left speechless. In fact, it inspired me to write a love letter to my country (which I will write today). To me, this is not patriotism. I love my country, but I am genuinely ashamed to know that the rest of the world will be watching footage of our country’s citizens dancing in the streets. How are we any better than those who celebrated in the Middle East after 9/11? I know it’s not the same. But it feels immature- like we’re playing some global video game and we just scored a point.

I love my country, but not because we killed a vile man. I’ll speak my truth and tell you more about why I love my country later.

It’s Just Not Black and White

Now mind you, I’m not taking one side and arguing for it. My emotions are really genuinely torn on the whole issue of Osama bin Laden’s death. I’m not such a pacifist that I don’t believe the world is better off without this rat bastard. And I felt a rush of glee when I first heard the news. But it was brief and mostly followed by a rush of pure relief. And then, by the next day, my heart was heavy because of how people were reacting.

And now I am just asking us to consider — just consider — that maybe death is not something to celebrate. Maybe we need not watch horror movies and play video games that make us numb to the reality that life is precious and death is always tragic for someone, even when it’s the villain that gets killed.

Maybe, just maybe, we can evolve as a society because of this.

Maybe we can awaken, so we don’t have crucifixions and public stonings and witch hunts and Zozobra Festivals.

So light a candle with me today, my loves. And may we all share a moment of silence on this somber week to honor those we lost, feel the release of emotion, heal the decade-old wounds many of us still carry, unite as one, and move forward with grace, respect, dignity, and a dream of world peace.

What does this bring up for you? What do you think Jesus would do if he found out Osama bin Laden died? How might you open your heart in a way that allows you to experience the release in this without getting swept up into the hatred and intolerance we’re calling “patriotism” here?

Feel free to respectfully disagree with me! Speak your truth about your feelings here.

PS: Came across this post by Susan Piver, “Osama bin Laden Is Dead. One Buddhist’s Response” — pretty much says it all. What do you think?

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Lissa Rankin, MD: Founder of OwningPink.com, Pink Medicine Woman coach, motivational speaker, and author of What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend and Encaustic Art: The Complete Guide To Creating Fine Art With Wax.

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Nicole G.
Nicole Gorman4 years ago

Unfortunately the violence of our world spews forth in scary ways and your reaction was understandable and valid. It's hard not to lose the best in ourselves within the envelope of violence our society has created for us.

Jonathan N.
Jonathan N.4 years ago

The entire cosmos is saturated in and driven by violence, stars exploding, planets colliding, gamma rays frying planets for millions of light-years, mammals fighting to the death over everything from food to mating opportunities. Lions destroying elephants, bears destroying lions, insects destroying plants, plants choking rock, plants destroying other plants, white blood cells obliterating viri, teeth optimized for ripping and shredding flesh be it animal or vegetable flesh.

And those who love to invoke Christ and try to unsteady the truth of violence let me remind you of Matthew 10:34-36.

One who feels something deeply wrong about this is ignoring one's own call to create violence, that is the root of one's cognitive dissonance on the subject. It is the fear of existential life itself, it is ignoring the call to entropy.

To say that violence is inhumane is to show your own solipsism and demonstrate an inability to pay attention to the nature of the universe itself.

Howard C.
Howard Crosse4 years ago

We have a kind-of similar thing in the UK when we burn an efergy of Guy Falkes (who tried to blowup our legislature in 1605), we buy an effergy of the guy and have fireworks etc. I guess that the rationale has been forgotten but burning someone in public???

May Howie
may Howie4 years ago


Courtney Belyea
Past Member 4 years ago

I agree with you, it sick to celebrate such things because if we do we are saying we tolerate suffering which is... inhumane.

Danielle Herie
Danielle Herie4 years ago


DobieMax Wojcik
DobieMax WoBib4 years ago


Roxane Connor
Roxane Connor4 years ago

I too was concerned with the televised reaction to bin Laden's death.Part of it is I guess ,some people will use any excuse to party.I noticed long ago that sadly we have yet to evolve away from our need for human sacrifice.
I greeted the news with a prayer for peace and the hope that the virgins Osama encountered on the other side were the young men he duped into committing suicide.

Parvez Z.
Parvez Zuberi4 years ago

To me did not make any sense

Mary B.
Mary B.4 years ago

My reaction was simply, well maybe now we can retire this scare tactic. It remains to be seen if people will let it go tho as some groups seem to really like to hate and punish.
I totally understand your reaction Lissa. That much hate and desire for revenge released all at once thru the burning figure would feel hidious to anyone who understood the purpose of negative emotions, and who would naturally be sickened by violence. Imagine the pyche of a child trying to understand that image. This kind of hatred is not native to our species, it is shocked into us untill we become numb. I know of an energy clearing practice that asks the intelligence of Nature to release and collect all those unprocessed human emotions and take them on to their natural next level where they may continue their own journey in gentleness and love.One does not have to be any religion to accept a benevolent source beyond ones ego.