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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. Jenn

    "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."

    They weren't respectful on 9/11, why should we be when one of their own is killed?

    May 2, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
    • bob

      Because its the right thing to do. We dont all have to act in such an offensive mannner.

      May 2, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
    • Andy Ellis

      Offensive manner?! This man was not a Muslim, he was a Muslim extremist. That quote by Jenn was refferring to people who aren't terrorists. The world is a better place for Bin laden being dead.

      May 2, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
  2. jim

    W.W.J.D.?

    May 2, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • Adam

      Who cares?

      May 3, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  3. Joey W.

    Part of a democracy is enthusiastically persuing Justice. When Justice on a large scale has been long delayed is it really surprising that victims of the crime are enthusiaistic about its conclusion? All Americans are victims of this criminal and as such the excitement is very widespread.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
  4. Squeezebox

    Al-Queda's followers handed out candy the day after 9-11! Why shouldn't we do likewise? Trick-or-Treat!

    May 2, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  5. Alina77

    I am not cheering for his death (so he died faster and mirthfully) compare to people in the World Trade center. I am cheering for justice.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
  6. Ed Hasertt

    "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."

    Really??? Really???? this statement cannot pass the laugh test!

    May 2, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  7. Noigiler

    Why is it morally wrong to celebrate the demise of someone who has both the means and desire to kill yet more innocents? Lives have been saved today by the elimination of OBL. That is worth celebrating. Other than absolutist and indefensible babble from bibles, there is no rational justification for NOT eliminating him. Letting him live would be the morally reprehensible choice as it would imply acceptance of further lost innocents.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  8. Mad Matty

    Although I think that U.S. foreign policy has been excessively interventionist at times during the last 10 years (particularly the war in Iraq), I'm inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt regarding how they want to mark the passing of Osama Bin Laden. 09/11 traumatized our national psyche, and many people personally blame Osama bin Laden. In that context, I understand the urge to celebrate his demise.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  9. Dana

    Celebrating the death of one evil person sort of mentally contains the evil; it feels good to "zap" the creature who "got us" on 9-11. On a smaller scale it's the carrying out of the death penalty here. In such cases, the murder victim's family may feel good, but celebration rarely happens, since the victim is still dead–as are the 3000 victims of Osama. While the executed murderer will never kill again, the same cannot be said for those who carried out OBL's plan. The same forces the created this figure on a hate quotient with Hitler are still in the world. There may be reataliatory attacks, but the much bigger and far more dangerous problem are the various and complex forces that sustain al Qaeda in the first place. If the death of this human (and denying this only makes the problem falsely and temporarily containable) also killed the greater and broader hate mentality, then I suppose this one sacrifiece would be worth celebrating. Americans in particular like simplicity of the "single bullet" getting rid of a boogyman whose superior intelligence killed a lot of us who are not used to mass violence taking us by surprise. Those who are dancing in teh streets, though, are the very reflection of the mentality that enable boogymen like Hitler, OBL, and others like them to keep on succeeding in their missions. It will be interesting to see how long this feeling of euphoric "justice' lasts among the 9-11 victims' families.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
  10. todd harding

    How far have we come? Dancing in the streets? Cheering? Granted Osama is evil, but like evil men before him, he should have been tried by an international tribunal for war crimes, just as the Nazi leadership was tried, and convicted on the evidence of their atrocities, and then executed.
    If we were so supremely confident that we could have gained a conviction, what would it have hurt to have done the right thing and put the man on trial. Not summarily executed him. Or is this the new world order we wish the world to accept, if we dont like you and what you have done, we are not going to try you, we will just kill you. Period. IF so then why are we wasting time and taxpayer dollars on the Serbian/Bosnian war crimes tribunals? Why not just kill them too?

    May 2, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • NOTA LIBY

      lets see...have you ever heard of suicide bombers? well just incase you havnt, they look like normal civilians untill THEY EXPLODE. if you try this beast everywhere he oes will be plagued by more terror...these cave dwelling creatons have no morals or standards, they dont care about dying for a lunatic theyve never met...theyll fight for him just to get there 40 virgins

      May 2, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
    • James

      I am sure they wanted him alive more then anything for Intel. But i am sure Osama made sure they had no choice but to kill him as in his eyes that would make him a martyr. When he most likely pointed a gun back at US troops they did what they were trained to do and that is to protect themselves. Every time some terrorist attacks the west they dance in the streets in the middle east. I think its just fine if we get to do it this one time.

      May 2, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  11. driftingspecter

    >
    >> If he hadn't committed any atrocities against innocent people, then it wouldn't have been fine to cheer his death
    >
    And yet we are silent on the sport killing atrocities of our own servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan!!

    May 2, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  12. NOTA LIBY

    excuse me for interjecting but since when is this homicidal lunatic a human-being? why should he be given respect when he kills almost 3000 INNOCENT, let me make this clear...INNOCENT!!!!!!!!!! people soely because they were americans? why must these pius people try to make everything a time of mourning? i for one wish i couldve been infront of the white house last night/early this morning to CELEBRATE this lunatics death...the only regrets i have of his death was that it was swift and painless and not painful

    May 2, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
  13. driftingspecter

    >
    >> Bin Laden's death has been one of the few good pieces of news for a long time
    >
    Well let me be honest as well... the fact that we choose Bin Laden over the hideous acts of American servicemen highlights the bankrupt nature of American society at this point.

    May 2, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • Andy Ellis

      What do you mean by "hideous" when it comes to our servicemen? Remember, these are the ones fighting for our country.

      May 2, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  14. vr2000

    Morally wrong to cheer? He was an outright terrorist. He has killed 1000s. We need to celebrate this the whole year and should infact celebrate this day as a national holiday.

    May 2, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
  15. SFC Mike

    The article is flawed in referring to this as an assassination. OBL was armed and resisted, he was killed like any other armed enemy combatant.

    Celebrate his death? I don't have the slightest qualm with celebrating his death. This guy dedicated his life to his vision of a pan-Islamic world order, and nothing would change that. He was a mass murderer, and a charismatic recruiter and focus point for other mass murderers.

    Whatever attempts at retaliation there may be, they will also be opportunities for intelligence and further operations to disrupt and destroy those assets. Same thing with any jockeying for leadership – any change in activities or location or communications provides us with further intel and operational opportunities to further weaken and marginalize al Qaeda and its various components.

    May 2, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
    • RJ

      Bingo. You nailed it right there Mike.

      May 2, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
  16. Margo Schulter

    For me, it is a time of mourning that Osama bin Laden was
    not captured/arrested alive, tried, and imprisoned the rest
    of his life - something that would affirm the value of
    human life that 9/11 and his other acts of terrorism and
    mass murder desecrated. Assuming that this was a bona fide
    arrest attempt where the officers made every effort to
    capture him alive, and tragically failed, such events are
    times when good police departments feel not triumph, but
    sadness and mourning. And that sadness is one mark of their
    professionalism.

    May 2, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  17. Jose

    If he hadn't committed any atrocities against innocent people, then it wouldn't have been fine to cheer his death. But he masterminded the killings of countless number of people. Besides, by having killed him, we avoided more killings that would have been planned by him. Now, I'm looking forward to chearing the detention or killing of any of the remainder terrorists in the most wanted list.

    May 2, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  18. Andrew

    Lets be honest here, it's been a terrible decade. Terrorist attacks, natural disasters demolishing whole cities and even countries, a seemingly endless war in the middle east, people dying by the thousands, the world's economy dropping like a brick, people losing their homes to heartless banks.

    Bin Laden's death has been one of the few good pieces of news for a long time, excuse us for clinging to it. It's really easy to sit back and act like the world is black and white from a pulpit, but guess what religious leaders, it isn't. Osama bin Ladin was and evil monster, and the world is a lot better off now that he's gone.

    Morally right or not, I think that's worth celebrating.

    May 2, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • Chris

      Yes, we should all be happily distracted from the real issues.

      May 2, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • Bomboclat

      How exactly is the death of the world's most dangerous terrorist not a "real issue"?

      May 2, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
  19. Bob B

    The people commenting in the article weren't catergorized as liberal. Being Christian, Muslim and Jewish scholars/leaders, they may hold some very conservative ideas. Anyone who thinks it takes a "bleeding heart liberal" to not want to celebrate death is one sick puppy. Cheer if you want to, I'll certainly understand how you feel, but allow me my own adult reaction.

    May 2, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  20. driftingspecter

    >
    >> excuse me for interjecting but since when is this homicidal lunatic a human-being? why should he be given
    >> respect when he kills almost 3000 INNOCENT, let me make this clear...INNOCENT!!!!!!!!!! people soely because they
    >> were americans?
    >
    I ask again, why don't we have the same view of American servicemen who killed "INNOCENT, let me make this clear...INNOCENT!!!!!!!!!! people" in Afghanistan and Iraq for sport!!

    May 2, 2011 at 5:54 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.