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Is it morally right to celebrate bin Laden's death?
Thousands celebrated at Times Square in New York City early Monday after Osama bin Laden's death was announced.
May 2nd, 2011
04:11 PM ET

Is it morally right to celebrate bin Laden's death?

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - Festive crowds gathered to cheer his assassination.

One newspaper headline eulogy read, “Rot in Hell.” Televised chants echoed:
“U.S.A.! U.S.A!”

Americans spilled into the streets for spontaneous celebrations after news spread that Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, had been assassinated.

Yet another reaction took place in more sober moments as people of faith watched the giddy celebrations with a tangled mix of emotions.

Is it morally wrong to celebrate the assassination of bin Laden in such a festive, patriotic way?

That’s the question that troubled Danielle Tumminio, an Episcopal priest, who fought back tears as she digested the news that bin Laden had been killed.

Tumminio was in New York on September 11, 2001. Her Long Island neighborhood, filled with lawyers, stockbrokers and firefighters, lost scores of people in the attacks.

“I remember coming home and smelling the smoke, seeing the debris and going to the funerals,” Tumminio says. “I actually studied abroad because I wanted to get away from feeling unsafe.”

But when Tumminio saw images of Americans celebrating, she felt something else: moral ambivalence.

Osama bin Laden's death: How should we feel?

“My first reaction was, ‘I wish I was with them,’” Tumminio says. “My second reaction was, ‘This is disgusting. We shouldn’t be celebrating the death of anybody.’ It felt gross.”

Jubilance, exaltation, revulsion - all those emotions mingled as people of faith struggled to find an appropriate response to bin Laden’s death.

No one we interviewed for this story denied the importance of bin Laden’s death; the heroism of the American soldiers; the importance of serving justice.

But religious leaders of different faiths say no one should rejoice in the death of a person, even a hated enemy.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld says that when people hear about the downfall of an enemy, rabbis often remind them of a verse from Proverbs: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.”

Herzfeld - who is the rabbi of Ohev Sholom, The National Synagogue, the oldest and largest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C. - says that according to the Talmud, “God does not rejoice with the fall of the wicked.”

“As the rabbinic teaching goes, as the children of Israel were crossing the sea and the army of Pharaoh was drowning, God rebuked the angels for showing excessive joy,” Herzfeld says.

Emad El-Din Shahin, a professor of religion at the University of Notre Dame, says the Quran also teaches reverence for every life, even the most repugnant ones.

He says Islam stresses that the death of a person should be observed in a respectful and solemn way for all people, not just Muslims.

He told a story from Islam to illustrate his point.

The Prophet Mohammad was sitting by a road one day when a funeral procession came by. The prophet stood up out of respect, says Shahin.

“The people with him told him, ‘But he’s not a Muslim.’

“The Prophet Mohammad said, ‘Isn’t it a human soul?’”

Shahin says most Muslims reject the notion that bin Laden was a Muslim leader.

“Bin Laden did not represent Islam or Muslims,” Shahin says. “He was an aberration. Most of the teachings and practices of al Qaeda were condemned by the majority of Muslim scholars and populations.”

One Christian leader pointed to a biblical story from the life of Jesus. Scott Appleby, a history professor who studies the roots of religious violence at Notre Dame, said that when Jesus was surrounded by guards near the end of his life, one of his disciples picked up a sword.

Jesus rebuked the disciple, saying, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.”

“Certainly Osama bin Laden, who lived by the sword, received the world’s form of justice,” says Appleby. “But do we really think that violence, even a ‘justified’ act of violence, has the capacity to heal the wounds inflicted by violence - or to end the cycle of violence?”

Some leaders say that dancing on bin Laden’s grave is wrong from an ethical point of view as well.

“Killing someone should never be a cause for celebration or joy,” says Rick Halperin, past chairman of the board of directors of Amnesty International USA.

“We as a nation are repulsed when we see Muslims dancing over the death of
Americans. Why would we think our reaction would not be seen as disgusting behavior to them?”

The best reaction would be “somber reflection,” says Halperin, who is also director of Southern Methodist University’s Embrey Human Rights Program.

Tumminio, the Episcopal priest, has already arrived at that place. She says she plans to preach a sermon about the appropriate reaction to bin Laden’s death. She’s still sorting through what she will say.

“I think people have a right to celebrate. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with holding up American flags. But I don’t think we should celebrate the taking of life.”

There’s at least one sentiment she feels no ambivalence about.

Bin Laden’s death should give the United States something else its citizens have craved since September 11, 2001.

“I think this is going to be unifying for us,” she says. “Very few things have been unifying for us in the past 10 years.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: 9/11 • Christianity • Death • Islam • Judaism • Muslim • New York • Osama bin Laden

soundoff (1,195 Responses)
  1. Scott A

    Sure it's okay to cheer when we kill people overseas whose actions led to the deaths of thousands of people here in the U.S.. It's not like we ever had leaders here in the U.S. who were responsible for thousands of people dying (as long as you don't count the years 1776 to 2011). I'm sure U.S. citizens wouldn't care if the shoe were on the other foot. Hey, I'm just stoked that we can bring our troops home now – that's what all this means right?

    May 2, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
  2. susanbellnc

    ‎"I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that."
    ~Martin Luther King

    May 2, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
  3. Forrest

    As much as I despise a man like Osama Bin Laden, and as much as I blame him for the tragic deaths of so many innocent people, I cannot personally celebrate the death of a human being.

    Am I glad he's dead? Honestly, yes, I am.

    Do I want to high-five someone over it? Honestly, no, I don't.

    It was something the man expected because he knew he'd started a campaign that put himself and others at risk for his "cause".

    He didn't hide just for the fun of it.

    He was a killer. Responsible for the deaths of so many innocent people.

    So he deserved the ending he got.

    But I'm not going to throw a party and celebrate.

    Nobody really wins in war.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:55 pm |
  4. R Burns

    There are two different types of celebration at the fall of an enemy. One is smug and self-righteous, regaling in the death of another human being, dancing on the grave as it were. The other would be joyfully toasting the victory of one's own forces and the achievement at reaching a long-sought goal. With caution towards the future and the ramifications of a new era in the war against terrorism, victorious celebration is both appropriate and cleansing. Bin Laden's burial at sea was accomplished with the required dignity under Islamic traditions. My own first reaction was a barb at Donald Trump and had little in fact to do with Bin Laden-but it was a moment of catharsis. There is no body to be either treated as a martyr or with indiginty. Time to move forward with all eyes open.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
  5. Lindsay

    Thank you for posting this, CNN. When we celebrate violence and death in the streets, we're guilty of the same morbid lack of civilization that we faulted the Middle East with just days ago. Osama bin Laden's death is a victory for all humanity, but we should be careful not to lose our humanity as we move forward.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
  6. LoganWon

    The USA did in Iraq, what the rest of the Middle Eastern countries are just starting to do, get rid of their horrible governments!

    May 2, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
  7. Evan

    I agree, but it wasn't necessarily cheering because he was killed, it was cheering because we finally found him which allows justice to be served. This is ok to cheer.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
  8. Karl G

    I hope Professor Emad El-Din Shahin didn't hear all the fireworks going off in South Bend last night, I live only three blocks south of the ND campus. Frankly, I believe these wars have been terrible, but I don't feel the celebrations are. Brynn W's remarks that people celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden is "anti-islamic," is absurd.

    I heard and saw no mention, last night, of Islam at all.

    As much as I dislike the wasteful nature of the "War on Terror," it is not a "War on Islam."

    May 2, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
  9. Mary

    Are you saying that I dont have morals or faith because I celebrated Bin Laden's death. All I have to say is ye without sin cast the first stone.......

    May 2, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
    • Justthefacts

      Knockin the $#!T out of you with one Big hell of a Stone!

      May 2, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
    • Robert

      Its my experience, even as a christian, that the religious are often the first to forget this particular phrase; even though they are so keen to cite others.

      May 2, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
    • Peace2All

      @Mary

      Hey -Mary...

      You Said to someone: "Are you saying that I dont have morals or faith because I celebrated Bin Laden's death. All I have to say is ye without sin cast the first stone..."

      So... are you saying that you 'are' a 'sinner'...?

      Just curious, as I am making no judgement about you, but interested in the way you phrased your posting.

      Respectfully,

      Peace...

      May 2, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
    • NoStoneCaster

      Oh the irony.

      May 2, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
    • Joyce

      Mary, your post troubles me, only because it seems you have not thought about the value of a human life, even one so vile as Osama bin Laden's. Celebrating his death makes us no better that those that celebrated in the streets after 9/11. Aren't we better than that? Don't you think it is a tragedy that this man's life was spent with a focus on hate, and that all his efforts and successes were to further this hate?Ho sad that such a talented man devoted his gifts to destruction.

      I can't celebrate his death, but am quite sad that I cannot celebrate his life.

      May 2, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
  10. Mike

    The SOB celebrated when he watched coverage of the planes slamming into the World Trade Center. After ten years, I'd say Americans have the right to cheer.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
    • I_Concur

      I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." – Martin Luther King Jr

      May 2, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
  11. Hell Yeah!

    I hope he knew what was coming when he got it. So happy to see the support of so many in our city streets. We kicked ass yesterday and I am glad. Cowards always get it in the end. So, yes...Americans know how to celebrate, too and I'm glad the whole world got to see THAT!

    May 2, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
  12. rachel

    I like that the article addresses the complexity of celebrating a death, but I wonder why it is only "people of faith" who are noted to have a subtle understanding of the moral questions involved. We atheists also feel the dissonance of celebrating a human's death.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
  13. Andrea Thomas

    I didn't cheer and celebrate but I am glad he was killed. If that is wrong, God forgive me! And God please forgive me for wanting his body drug through the streets of New York City just like all those other extremists Muslims have treated our capture soldiers. Bin Laden was lucky I had no say in his burial.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
    • I_Concur

      I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."

      – Martin Luther King Jr

      May 2, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
  14. Buddy

    I get it. Killing is a basic moral wrong – killing of another human. Thing is, a chunk of everyone affected by 911, a chunk deep down, doesn't count Osama bin Laden as human. That part can and will rejoice without repent.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
  15. Justthefacts

    It's wrong Wrong WRONG!!! But then it's widely known that America has become a "Land of Low Morale".

    May 2, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
  16. Dennis

    Any Christian declaring moral disgust at the celebration of the death of Bin Ladin has not read the Old Testament. The Children of Israel celebrated and praised their God for the successful genocide of thousands of peoples ordered by their God. Any Christian who worships a God who will send countless people to hell for "sins" that do not even fall into the same universe as the crimes of Bin Laden is either ignorant or a hypocrite.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  17. Bob

    As an atheist I feel insulted by any suggestion that only the religious feel that the celebrations were over the top. The "faithful" do not have a monopoly in morality.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
    • ralph

      I agree. My spouse and I are atheists and we were both sickened by the celebratory reactions.

      May 2, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
    • Robert

      No offense, Bob, but its my experience that atheists get upset anytime the religious say anything about anything. The article did not state that only the religious are appalled. Realize you are on a religious blog and it is directed towards that demographic. Noone is questioning your, or any other atheist's, morality (if they are they aren't really christian).

      May 2, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
  18. SuzQ

    Thank you for this article and all the input. My immediate thought was "I hope this means we can bring our soldiers home and end our part in those wars soon." Also, "ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." I thought it a little sad that there was celebration because it was a human life, no matter how I judged his worthiness of it.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
    • cassandra

      Thank you. Lovely way to express it.

      May 2, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  19. mem

    It's absolutely morally ok to cheer.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:35 pm |
    • I_Concur

      Then you are placing yourself on the same level as Bin Laden! How's the view from down there?

      May 2, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
    • ralph

      I'm an Atheist. I was horrified when the twin towers fell. I abhored Bin Laden. However, I did not cheer. To cheer a murder no matter who it is – is barbaric and immoral. You can cheer for a team, a person or an event – but to cheer because someone was shot in the head? Not so moral.

      May 2, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
    • Jigae

      I_Concur: I assume mem did not actually arrange anyone's deaths. I don't think you can compare their moral merits.

      May 2, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • Robert

      @ ralph: I wouldn't call this a murder. This is self-defense. This man has and continued to orchestrate the deaths of thousands worldwide. The entire free world wanted this man dead.

      May 2, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
  20. I_Concur

    "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."

    – Martin Luther King Jr.

    I am sure Dr. ML King Jr would not be dancing on the street after seeing OBL dead.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
    • Jean

      Thank you.

      May 2, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
    • I disagree

      MLK was not always right, or righteous, as demonstrated by his marital infidelities. Thus, in this case, I could care less what MLK would or would not have done. I will rejoice in the death of one of Satan's own and would dance on his grave if not for the fact he was fed to the sharks.

      May 2, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
    • Robert

      “The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance: he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked.”
      God. I Win.

      Just kidding. I think this is a load of crap. I posted this to illustrate that throwing around quotes outside of the context in which they were said proves nothing. Im pretty sure MLK was speaking of racists and segregationists here. Not international mass murderers.

      May 2, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
    • Robert

      I disagree: just so you know, your comment about MLK is one of reasons that many people dont like christians. He is a modern paragon for morality and equality and you write him off because of human mistakes he made. I want to remind you that the very saints were sinners too. The apostle Paul rounded up christians to be killed when he was saul and he is venerated as one of the most holy of the christian saints. Judge not.

      May 2, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.