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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. Jojo

    This is not a game. It was the right thing to do but that's not about who's winning but who is doing the right thing.

    May 2, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
  2. madhatter

    Thank you for writing this piece. I'm glad that I wasn't the only one with this dilemma. While I'm thrilled that he is no longer threatening the world, behaving like our country had just won a sporting event didn't seem like the appropriate response. I would argue that it isn't just people of faith who are wondering about this though, many people who do not believe in god are in the same boat. My heart goes out to those families who lost loved one's in 9/11, I hope this brings some healing.

    May 2, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
  3. Alejandro Dron

    'Downfall'
    http://www.zoharme.com
    Graphic Commentaries on the Middle East

    May 2, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
  4. Jesu

    definitely not ok to cheer. We're all the same beyond our ego. His mind was not in the right place, but at heart he was just like us.

    May 2, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
  5. Jeff

    Radical Muslims celebrated the 9/11 attacks, we celebrate Bin Ladens assassination, that makes us no better than they are. He should have been brought to stand trial, not assassinated. We talk about our country and its laws and beleif in justice, is it justice only for a certain few? Blood begats blood, he was responsible for American deaths, we are responsible for his death, his cohorts will certainly attempt retaliation against us. It's a never ending cycle, I feel no joy at this point, just dread for what will happen in the future.

    May 2, 2011 at 9:42 pm |
  6. Joe

    Yeah it's fine. Woooooo!

    May 2, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
  7. regertz

    Those who suffered at bin Laden's hands have a right to rejoice but for most of us I think the best response is to simply be grateful and consider what lies ahead. With BL gone we can hope the Arab spring movement will remain a democratic and plural focus and that moderates will continue to lead it. The new No 1 in Al Qaeda is fanatic but lacking bin Laden's personal network (rather like the Dons of Sicily and Italy and the aristocratic families of Spain and France, the bin Ladens had a very loyal clientela) he will find it tougher going and Al Qaeda may even begin to disintegrate as factions form and especially if the democratic movement brings peace and some degree of prosperity. I'm very glad a criminal mass murderer is dead but it's a time for reflection and careful consideration...Qualities our great President has just displayed in abundance.

    May 2, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
  8. James

    What an incredibly insightful and well-written article. Food for thought in troubling times

    May 2, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
  9. TJ

    How about rejoicing that he won't be able to kill any more people? I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

    May 2, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
  10. LLoyd Braun

    Imagine if it was your family being killed by this coward. Would you still not cheer when he was killed? I have a feeling you would be dancing in the streets.

    May 2, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • Ann

      My morality doesn't change just because I'm personally affected by an event. Inappropriate behavior is inappropriate behavior.

      May 3, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  11. anon

    i love this article. Prophet Muhammad will always be the best representative of Islam. so pleasee don't judge Islam based upon what happened on 9/11 as during 9/11 itself some muslims were dead as well and indeed many muslims were not happy with the downfall of WTC just like what Americans felt.

    May 2, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
  12. Melanie

    I found the celebration repulsive. The whole episode is tragic including that we are forced to this resolution. As an atheist, I also find this article to be repulsive. Compassion is not the domain of religion, it is the domain of human beings. If Osama taught us anything it should be that religion–any religion–can and will be abused. I am not glad he is dead but I am glad it is over.

    May 2, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
    • gb1963

      melanie, I agree with you 100%. religion has killed many more than it has saved. this includes this deluded guy and his victims.

      May 2, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
  13. Josh

    For the religious:
    "Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live." (Ezekiel 33:11)

    ‎"Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow." Then all the people shall say, "Amen!" (Deuteronomy 27:19)

    It is the not pleasure in the death of the wicked but in justice being served. He had chances to change to surrender. He made the choice to turn from God.

    May 2, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
  14. Amy

    Thanks for the article! I was having the same struggle this morning. Then, I saw a sign held by someone at Ground-Zero last night. It struck me as the perfect sentiment. It read:

    "We celebrate PEACE, not death."

    Yes, I think that it's proper to celebrate the hope of increased peace that comes with OBL's death. I think that it's okay to celebrate a victory for the country on the war on terrorism.

    May 2, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
  15. JohnNrix

    Is is sad to see a life wasted.
    It is sad to see privilege talent and position squandered.
    It is sad to acknowledge that brutal violence took place by those acting on your behalf.
    I can imagine that these dedicated soldiers do not take their actions lightly and will be affected by the outcome of their mission for as long as they live.
    On other hand OBL's death was a predictable and expected outcome of the deliberate actions and decision made solely by OBL.
    I will not rejoice the death of a human being, but I will celebrate the success of dedicated soldiers risking their lives, and incurring terrible lasting stresses to fulfill their duty, I will celebrate justice and closure for those with deep wounds, I will breath easier that a force of destruction has been neutralized, I will hope that his death will reduce the number of people dying on both sides of the ideology.
    I will understand that those who openly celebrate the event are overcome by a mix of emotions that they themselves may not be able to explain – but at the end of the day they hunger for a safe peaceful world free from misguided violent individuals.

    May 2, 2011 at 9:31 pm |
    • Amy

      Exactly, John. I couldn't have said it better!

      May 2, 2011 at 9:33 pm |
  16. JustTheFacts

    ‎"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 9:30 pm |
  17. Mike H

    "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
    John Donne
    These words were inscribed in stone at my high-school. I was sad when McVeigh and Hussein were put to death, not because I did not think they deserved it, but because I hate seeing someone so vial that extermination becomes necessary. Last night, even I gave a fist pump to say "YES". Sometimes you can't help but celebrate even if your gut tells you its wrong.

    May 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • gb1963

      Thank you for spelling it out so clearly. That is exactly how I felt.

      May 2, 2011 at 9:54 pm |
  18. blah9999

    i donno...feels pretty good to me

    May 2, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
  19. oliver

    Thank you>I felt awful that I was happy he had died.After much more thought, I think I was just relieved that he couldn't do anymore harm.Maybe now those who were harmed can start to go on...

    May 2, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • Mike

      Why would you feel awful for feeling happy? Since when is it wrong to be happy that a life is over? Especially if it's a life filled with hate and the blood of thousands of innocent? Don't feel bad for vengeance, EVERYONE should be happy that someone like this is dead. Just think, how about one of the children on 9/11 American Airlines Flight 11 who may have saw Daniel Lewin's throat sliced open by one of the hi-jackers. That happened 100% because of Osama Bin Laden. How can you feel anything BUT happy knowing this man is dead?

      May 2, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • oliver

      02.26.1993wtc ny///09.11.2001 usa////07.07.2005 london Let's not forget

      May 2, 2011 at 9:49 pm |
    • James

      It's wrong to celebrate the death of a man. But Osama wasn't a man. He was a filthy animal and died like one. So let's get this party started!!!!

      May 2, 2011 at 9:57 pm |
  20. cullenpest

    Obama finally did something right! Now get that Muslim lover out of there
    before he screws something else up.

    May 2, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • Robert

      Take your hatred somewhere else.

      May 2, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
    • regertz

      You cannot touch him...You garbage. A great and courageous President is confirmed and as even Rush noted, "Thank God for President Obama". God bless the President of the United States and all who serve him.

      May 2, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
    • chuckmartel

      cullenpest, the most stupid poster yet! Congrats.

      May 2, 2011 at 9:48 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.