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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. Mike

    "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." You mean the way that the 9/11 victims were respected? Some families recieved their loved ones months and years later in little pieces. Many families have never recovered their loved ones. OK, he is dead – very sad, too bad. Now, lets move on.

    May 3, 2011 at 8:53 am |
  2. Joe Peterson

    Let me first point out that those in the Muslim world who do cheer do so even if innocent blood is shed. In a similar vein Talmud and scriptural references pointed out in this article are not in complete context. Just give us part of the facts, enough to make us think we understand the issue when in fact we do not.

    May 3, 2011 at 8:50 am |
  3. The Wombast

    I think it is understandable that the first reaction is to cheer & celebrate; this was a major victory in a long, frustrating war that has cost many American lives. Like VE & VJ Day; it was a national sigh of relief, a jubilant "We got him!!!".
    But after the night of wild exultation it is time to soberly reflect on what we as a nation have gone through. Killing Bin Laden may have brought a sense of justice to the families of his victims & fallen soldiers, it won't bring their loved ones back. Exuberance seems out of place around them, what do they really have to celebrate?
    We have cheered, and we have united. Now its time to work together to rebuild lives as best we can, ponder the lessons learned in this struggle, & move forward.

    May 3, 2011 at 8:48 am |
    • The Wombat

      Sorry, it's "The Wombat". Not sure what a wombast is... ; )

      May 3, 2011 at 8:50 am |
  4. Italian

    BLAAAA BLAAAA BLAAAAAA... UR ALL SICK!!!! ITS ALL ABOUT MONEY AND POWER !!!!! JUDGEMENT DAY ... COME ALREADY !!!!! PPL MAKE ME SICK WITH THEIR STUPIDITY

    May 3, 2011 at 8:48 am |
  5. Italian

    This is Pathetic ... kill Bin Laden , and another shall rise !!!! Rejoice in a guy been killed ? YOUR ALL Sick People....
    like i said. his dead, and there will be others ! ... i agree that its wrong to Celebrate his death... sure he was a villain, but what ... it makes America a hero ? haha ... what ever !!!
    Watch... this is not the end ... there shall be more to come up...

    May 3, 2011 at 8:44 am |
  6. Mark White

    The author of this article uses terms that are not true. This terrorist was not assassinated. He could have surrendered but chose not to. I think people are cheering because it a major victory in the war on terror. Was it alright to celebrate the death of hitler and V-E day? Of course it was because it meant the war was close to over. Now OBL's death represents the end of the a decade of terrorism and war. Hopefully we move forward and wrap up our operations and bring our troops home. But celebrating is a good thing and the country feels united once again.

    May 3, 2011 at 8:43 am |
  7. Veridic

    Too many walls of text to give any decent reply to each. But I think the key of this article needs to be reiterated.

    Moral ambivalence- it should be so. We should cheer as a nation, someone who threatened not only our way of life but the lives of those people we call friends and family has been erased by people who already have dedicated their lives to protecting just that- friends, family, and a beautiful way of life. To not cheer would be a disgrace to our men and women serving in the armed forces, risking their lives to accomplish these goals.

    Yes, we should be somber and sad- the fact that someone could commit such atrocities and truly believe that they are doing the will of God is disheartening and disturbing. However, he is not the first, nor the last- and it is our duty as humans to preserve the lives of our brothers and sisters who could fall prey to such people. If the death of one man committed to destroying human life can help bring about the end of this particular wave of terror, potentially saving countless other lives- it is only logical (a faculty bestowed by evolution, or God- either way we have it for a reason, and it's not to be forgotten) to accept this outcome as morally acceptable, as well as the reaction of joy that may come with it.

    May 3, 2011 at 8:41 am |
  8. ADEX

    I THINK WE SHOULD IMPROVE OUR SECURITY NETWORK RATHER THAN PARTYING OVER CARCASS OF A LION.AFTERALL LIVES LOST CANNOT BE REPLACED BY HIS KILLING.

    May 3, 2011 at 8:41 am |
  9. Scott H

    To my fellow Christians- do not presume to tell people how to feel. THAT is the ultimate precipice of pride. This is why our churches are more empty than ever. If it is YOUR belief, and your true feeling that rejoicing in Bin Laden's death is "wrong", then practice it, and shut your mouth. As for me, as for my feelings, I'm glad he's dead. We haven't seen a butcher like him since our troops ran into SS Einsatztruppen in WWII...the rear extermination guard...butcherers of thousands of unarmed people. I'd rejoice with their demise too, regardless of how God- or you- thinks I should feel.

    May 3, 2011 at 8:41 am |
  10. Maynard Pittendreigh

    "God gave cause to rejoice over the enemy," says 2 Chron. Today we rejoice! But should we rejoice in anyone’s death? Ezekiel 18 says “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone ... Repent and live!” Bin Laden never renounced his ways. Let our joy for justice be tempered with restraint. Let our hate and anger die with bin Laden, recalling the words of Hebrews: “Make every effort to live in peace with all people.”

    May 3, 2011 at 8:37 am |
  11. me

    Following any of the greta prophets or leader of non-violence, we should be ashamed to cheer. W e are sick as humans until we quit this behavior regardless of how sick the murdered one is..

    May 3, 2011 at 8:34 am |
  12. JD

    I don't believe in celebrating the death of %99.9 of the people in the world. Some people do bad things and die, and I would not celebrate their death. On the other hand, there are some people in the world who are just pure evil. Hilter and Stalin would come to mind. They both killed millions of people and people did celebrate their deaths. Although Bin Ladin did not kill as many, he did kill thousands of incident people both Muslim and non-Muslin. If he has the capability, he would have killed more than Hilter and Stalin combined. Therefore, I for one am glad he is dead and hope he rots in Hell with Hilter and Stalin

    May 3, 2011 at 8:34 am |
  13. xxsevensxx

    As glad as I am that we finally found him, I refuse to cheer or celebrate. My feeling upon hearing the news was more of a grim satisfaction. I wish he had been tried and executed. At least then it would have felt like he had been held accountable for his crimes. Instant death was an undeserved mercy. Killing him on sight cheated his victims out of real justice.

    May 3, 2011 at 8:33 am |
  14. Sam

    Clearly you've never read Psalm 137... In addition that imprecatory psalm, there are numerous other psalms written by David where it talks about how he wants his enemies to be crushed. Granted the context is in terms of "the enemies of my God are the enemies of me" and vice-versa, but the point still remains: it is not WRONG to wish for your enemies to be defeated. Whatever the form takes doesn't really matter. But people always celebrate victory over their enemies, whether they're religious or not.

    What about when Jesus flipped over the tables in the temple and made a whip, driving out the tax collectors? Too often people condemn Christianity for being too "fire and brimstone" or that the God of the OT is different than the God of the NT. Get a grip. God isn't a smite-button pushing God, but he's also not a lackadasical, relativistic hippy. God is perfect love, but he is ALSO perfect justice.

    And why are we so quick to blame ourselves for celebrating when numerous Arab countries celebrated 9/11's "success"? Are we better than them? Not really. But are we so much worse for doing the same thing they did? I don't think so. Try to keep everything on an even, honest keel here people.

    May 3, 2011 at 8:33 am |
  15. Che-3

    Dumb question. We will celebrate the death of the most evil man on earth as we see fit.

    May 3, 2011 at 8:33 am |
  16. Asklepios417

    “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.

    He should rebuke Herzfeld for repeating such nonsense as if it were historical fact.

    The complete absence of archaeological evidence for this alleged drowning is deafening.

    May 3, 2011 at 8:32 am |
    • Jamie Ohan

      Although there is actually evidence supporting this with a lot of debris like chariot pieces etc. at the bottom of the red sea, you miss the point altogether. He was stating that even with a victory over the enemy, there is no room for celebration of the actual ending of their lives.

      May 3, 2011 at 8:43 am |
    • Jeff

      While I would agree that the lack of archaeological evidence is at the moment, not present, the irony of you bringing this point us is illustrated by the fact that your name is after the Greek god of healing; who is by definition mythical, though archaeological evidence supports his worship within temples during antiquity.

      May 3, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  17. John Richardson

    I too find much of the celebrating to be unseemly, but I also think it's no stretch that Bin Laden's death was a huge blow to a very unworthy cause and THAT is worth celebrating. In any case, it is not the death of a man but the blow to his cause that I celebrate, though not by dancing in the street.

    May 3, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  18. Asklepios417

    "Is it morally wrong to celebrate the assassination of bin Laden"

    It is morally wrong, and pejorative, to describe this killing as an assassination.

    bin Laden could have surrendered. He was killed in battle.

    May 3, 2011 at 8:29 am |
    • Thomas

      And how do you know this? For all you know he may have been shot immediatly and not given a chance to surrender. Note that I am not saying shooting him was wrong. But it was an assassination operation so we might as well be honest.

      May 3, 2011 at 8:43 am |
  19. Scott Hughes

    My girlfriend and I had a huge difference of opinion on this matter. She was upset that I posted on facebook a sentence that celebrated the country's mood on the discovery of Osama's death. She quoted MLK to demonstrate her belief that we should not celebrate anyone's death. I explained that while many are literally celebrating his death, my statement was simply rejoicing that Justice has been done. I firmly believe that everyone should respect others' beliefs. A death is a death. Osama's death means different things to different people. The beautiful thing about America and what differentiates us from societies that are not free is that we have the right to express our religious and political beliefs without fear of reprisal. We should celebrate that we all have the right to react and respond in our own individual fashion. We should all respect each other and take comfort that we have a free society to express ourselves.

    May 3, 2011 at 8:27 am |
  20. mjboston

    I am happy that finally they ended with this guy; however,I remeber when I watched people is Muslims countries cheer and be happy for the dead of other people and I used to think how disgusting and evil they were.. how low and uneducated they were for doing things like this and now, its kind of the same pic here in USA. dont get me wrong I am happy that this guy was taken down, but to go out and do rallies like we have won the world cup or something... I dont know about that....

    May 3, 2011 at 8:25 am |
    • Anotarba

      Hi all,

      I've had this weird emotion when I saw everyone cheering. Usually i wouldn't blog about it, but I really need to talk about it. I'm glad that this whole issue with 911 can get some "Closure". I even understand the relief of the situation. But the Cheering part really bugged me. I'm Canadian and I also love the states. I think by cheering USA and mocking the death of Bin Laden may have been the wrong thing to do. I started thinking back of those Al Queda guys who were cheering on the streets and burning the American flag on that dark day and I remember being very disgusted by what humans can do to each other. Now I'm not saying that we shouldn't be relieved that they caught him, but we should be more humble and think of the family members we lost and say a prayer for them. The first thing that i thought of when they found bin laden was finally a bad chapter is over. Finally these people can rest in peace... Never once did I feel like partying or cheering. Perhaps I'm a bit of a downer on this issue, but happiness was not something I felt after all the lives this man took from everyone. We should have spent energy praying rather than cheering. That is my opinion and it may not be the same as everyone else.

      May 3, 2011 at 8:51 am |
    • Bstalker

      I was put in mind of the "mobs" of the ancient Roman Empire. Lately, it seems as if our country is headed in the same direction...bankrupted by war, the cities are falling apart, the leadership is divided and the citizens are poor and starving. All we lack is gladiator tournaments. I understand that this was an evil man, don't get me wrong, but the parallels between Americans and the blood thirsty mobs were there yesterday. I just hope people wake up today and really think about why they acted the way they did.

      May 3, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • me

      I agree. Watching Americans cheer was really disturbing and morbid. What makes them think they have risen above another country that does the same thing?

      May 3, 2011 at 8:53 am |
    • BMNJ

      But the Muslims were cheering for the death of innocent Americans simply because they were Americans. This coward was resposible for thousands of deaths and therefore his death should be celebrated by whatever makes people happy. Now lets get the rest of these cowards and throw a bunch of parties.

      May 3, 2011 at 8:56 am |
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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.