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My Take: Why partying over bin Laden's death made me cringe
People celebrate the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden at the White House.
May 3rd, 2011
06:16 PM ET

My Take: Why partying over bin Laden's death made me cringe

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Today in my “Death and Immortality” course at Boston University we were supposed to be discussing suicide and euthanasia. Instead we spoke of the death of Osama Bin Laden, the celebrations that followed in its wake and the Facebook war that broke out later concerning the propriety of “celebrating death.”

Many of my students partied in the streets and on nearby Boston Common after President Barack Obama announced to the world that bin Laden was dead. Others found those celebrations not only inappropriate but morbid - fit for Mardi Gras, perhaps, but not for the demise of a fellow human being, however odious.

When I polled the class, my students were split almost precisely down the middle on this question. Some felt “uneasy” and “uncomfortable” with the parties (which one student insisted were actually patriotic "rallies"). Others thought what was being celebrated was not death but justice; finally, America had a victory in the war on terror: “Mission Accomplished.”

When I turned on the television on Sunday night and saw the impromptu partying, I cringed. I wasn’t sure why, but I didn’t like the optics.

A student today helped to clarify my reaction. It looked to her - and to me - like images we had seen before: people celebrating in the streets in the Muslim world after the 9/11 attacks. Have we become, she and I thought, like them?

Another student said that all the liberal hand-wringing about the propriety of the parties (including my own) was rooted in an inability to face up to our shared humanity. It is human to get angry. It is human to want revenge. It is human to hate your enemies, and to throw your hands in the air in exultation after they are killed.

Still, I couldn’t help noticing that the contingent in favor of the partying seemed farther removed from the events of 9/11. Students from New York City who had lost friends or family members on 9/11 - including one who said she went to 15 funerals in the days after the attacks - were in general more somber and reflective. Instead of celebrating bin Laden’s demise, it seemed, they were reliving the horrors of that day.

I didn’t lose any close friends on 9/11. But I thought that the visuals of drunken Americans chanting mindless (and often vulgar) slogans were not in American national security interests. There are lots of people around the world who hate America, and this was doing nothing to make us any more likeable.

But the key reasons for my disquiet were more psychological than strategic. I just don’t feel comfortable celebrating anyone’s death.

I think it comes down to an awareness of our shared mortality; the death of another human being reminds me of my own. And that is not a cause for celebration.

But the main reason I felt uncomfortable watching the bacchanalia in front of the White House and on Boston Common is because when it comes to death –anyone’s death - I feel I am in the presence of a great mystery, perhaps the great mystery of human life. And at least for me the appropriate response to that mystery is awe.

One of my students (she was in the anti-partying contingent) said that moments like this should lead us first and foremost into reflection. That is precisely what my students did for me today.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Death • Islam • Opinion • Osama bin Laden

soundoff (1,428 Responses)
  1. ira

    I was glad that we finally got him (to little too late) but my first thought when i saw all the parting, was of the same images that repelled us when the towers fell.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:58 am |
  2. Aaron

    Another American hating liberal professor upset that America did well for itself. Move on, nothing new or original to see here.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:51 am |
  3. Whitney

    ::rolls eyes:: To those that think it makes us "like them"– get over yourselves. Americans are celebrating the just demise of an evil, vile man, a purveyor of death. Those that celebrated 9/11 were celebrating the deaths of thousands of innocent people. If you can't tell the difference, shame on you.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:43 am |
  4. Dom

    Watching the twin towers fall, with 3000 people in them, made me uncomfortable.

    Watching people celebrate an American victory, over the man who contributed to that horrific day... did not make me uncomfortable.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:41 am |
    • sandi

      well said.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:04 am |
  5. The Dude

    It doesn't surprise me that there are people like yourself who claims to "cringe" at the sight of the demonstrations, does this make you a better human being and put you on your high horse? Remember this, the victims in the world trade center were unarmed and were slaughtered. In regards to celebrating the death of this monster, we may be celebrating it which is our first amendment right but we can stoop down to the level of those in the middle east who cheered on 9/11. This is what they understand, just like they understand the concept of violence and violence against other human beings. They won't pay any attention to you unless you come to their level. I am in the Military and currently deployed to Afghanistan, I 'm glad he was killed and I celebrated it. I can feel this way and still be a good, moral person. Let me ask of you, your students that side with you, did they also feel we shouldn't have gone into Afghanistan to begin with or take any action at all to defend our country? Yes, I was sort of suprised to see people in the streets; but then again I know why and remember how I felt on 9/11. Remember this and see how high and mighty you feel, Staff Sergeant Irving Hernandez and Corporal Lucas Frantz; they were killed in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 by sniper fire. I was with these fine soldiers, and I know now their deaths were not in vein.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:36 am |
    • sandi

      I just dont get the humanitarian side. He was an evil man. We took care of it.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:04 am |
  6. Matt

    Stephen you are a feminized man with no testicles. That is why you cringe.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:33 am |
  7. Khalsa

    Shame on all of you criticing punishment metted out to worlds top terrorist. This is a shinning moment for all the countries , people , religions and democracy around the world who believe in tolerance and peace . Hopefully we will soon get the remaining terror leaders and pray they get similar end .

    May 4, 2011 at 6:32 am |
  8. Will

    I have no issue with celebrating the death of an evil mass-murderer. Same as celebrating the death of Hitler. The world is not a safe place, but is a bit safer without Bin Laden.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:32 am |
  9. Rene

    Just as the people who sent the message of overwhelming joy celebrating death and destruction in the U.S. on 911, so did we upon learning of Bin Ladens death. I remember feeling profound sadness and anger at those cheering faces jumping up and down after the towers fell. I remember thinking, 'those people really don't understand, they are truly blinded by their conceived hatred of American's', or the western way of life. Which ever it is, I too cringe at the celebration of Bin Ladens death. I am glad he is no longer alive to poison more minds and influence even more death and destruction, but I for one will not be jumping up and down screaming USA!

    May 4, 2011 at 6:25 am |
  10. David

    Note I consider myself a moderate liberal and somewhat reflective. That being said I would say to all my fellow Americans that this liberal does NOT speak for me or most liberals The celebration of Bin Laden’s death is a celebration of evil personified destroyed. Yes without a doubt, undeniable personified evil has and does exist. We all know the big names of the 20th century: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot etc. Bin Laden was a new personified evil of the 21st century that needed to be destroyed. So yes I’ll gladly celebrate that.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:22 am |
  11. JamieIRL

    "A student today helped to clarify my reaction. It looked to her – and to me – like images we had seen before: people celebrating in the streets in the Muslim world after the 9/11 attacks. Have we become, she and I thought, like them?"

    How are the two instances even comparable? One instance is the celebration of the killing of 3000 people regardless of their affiliation, religion, or ethnicity. The other instance is the celebration of the death of the man who killed thousands of people on that day, before that day, and after that day, once again, regardless of who they were. All in the name of making some kind of twisted statement.

    You can get deep and philosophical about it all day but the reality is that this man was a murderer who needed to be captured or killed himself. If someone killed my family or friends I'd celebrate at his or her capture or demise. This man directly and indirectly negatively affected thousands of people in the world of all creeds. He was no nameless soldier who was just doing his duty, he was a man who went out of his way with no other reason than his own thoughts to kill thousands of people. Your opinion is not wrong and is almost admirable, but don't think for a second that you're better (or any of you) because you've managed to see a monster as someone who deserves anything at all.

    You're damn right I celebrate his death.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:20 am |
  12. Thanos

    He deserved much worse than death. I'm glad he's gone. The rest of you can go back to hugging your trees and stop trying to sound tough behind a keyboard.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:19 am |
    • Ted M

      Stupid much?

      May 4, 2011 at 6:20 am |
  13. JamieIRL

    "A student today helped to clarify my reaction. It looked to her – and to me – like images we had seen before: people celebrating in the streets in the Muslim world after the 9/11 attacks. Have we become, she and I thought, like them?"

    How are the two instances even comparable? One instance is the celebration of the killing of 3000 people regardless of their affiliation, religion, or ethnicity. The other instance is the celebration of the death of the man who killed thousands of people on that day, before that day, and after that day, once again, regardless of who they were. All in the name of making some kind of twisted statement.

    You can get deep and philosophical about it all day but the reality is that this man was a murderer who needed to be captured or killed himself. If someone killed my family or friends I'd celebrate at his or her capture or demise. This man directly and indirectly negatively affected thousands of people in the world of all creeds. He was no nameless soldier who was just doing his duty, he was a man who went out of his way with no other reason than his own thoughts to kill thousands of people. Your opinion is not wrong and is almost admirable, but don't think for a second that you're better (or any of you) because you've managed to see a monster as someone who deserves anything at all.

    You're damn right I celebrate his death.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:18 am |
    • Sam

      It's fine to celebrate and be happy the guy is dead – nobody is disputing that. But it makes us look like arrogant and ignorant morons when some college kid is jumping up and down drunk screaming racial slurs. That isn't celebrating the death or honoring the memory of those that died – that's just being an arrogant glory-hog idiot.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  14. David

    Note I consider myself a moderate liberal and somewhat reflective. That being said I would say to all my fellow Americans that this liberal does speak for me or most liberals. The celebration of Bin Laden's death is a celebration of evil personified destroyed. Yes without a doubt, undeniable personified evil has and does exist. We all know the big names of the 20th century: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot etc. Bin Laden was a new personified evil of the 21st century that needed to be destroyed. So yes I'll gladly celebrate that.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:15 am |
    • Ted M

      Yes, let's celebrate the death of another crazy religious leader. I do it whenever I hear a religious leader has died.

      May 4, 2011 at 6:22 am |
  15. Jeffersionian1776

    All you cringers get off your high horse. Celebrating the death of an avowed enemy that cussed so much pain and suffering is natural, cathartic and unifying. His evil knew no boundaries. If there are some Muslim/Arab world takes this celebration as a sign that we are are against them, that is their problem. As far as inciting them to more violence against us, Muslim extremists require very little to set them off. Why should we live our lives catering to these nuts?

    May 4, 2011 at 6:15 am |
  16. GertrudeStein

    I agree with the cringing but for me it has nothing to do with "psychology." It makes me cringe that Americans think this will solve anything. Bin Laden's been hiding for ten years, he hasn't been a major player for a decade and an entire generation of martyrs is already taking his place. A martyr is much more powerful than a tired old floozy who once did bad. I'm not sure exactly what we're supposed to be celebrating. If anything, we should fear for an Islamic backlash and response.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:15 am |
    • JamieIRL

      Is it your expert opinion that Osama was not a key player? Thanks Inspector Gadget. Be sure to inform the CIA of your discoveries.

      May 4, 2011 at 6:23 am |
  17. liza

    I didn't celebrate though I'm certainly glad he's dead. Instead I cried watching the footage from 9/11 that was being replayed. I remembered sitting with friends, all of whom had small children at the time, and watching the events unfold. I remember the first time I heard the name Osama Bin Laden and wondered what kind of world my children would be facing. I still don't know the answer to that question and I don't feel like it's time yet to rejoice.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:09 am |
  18. daaaave

    Obama and his crew were intent to milk this thing to death for political purposes. If this was not true, the White House wouldn't have photo-opped this thing so much. The White House could have issued a press release that a covert op was launched and that Bin Laden was assisinated.

    Two things in particular bothered me:

    1. The cameras that broadcast the 'hit' to Obama and his crew in real time, this this is some kind of computer game.
    2. The fact that this 'hit' was made at the express command of the US President and not by the CIA Director or Joint Chiefs as part of the US national security policy. A government, in my opinion, should not engage in murder. Definitely not overtly by the head of state. Since when can a man be executed without trial?

    Obama is a cheap politician. His leadership so far has been pathetic. In a few weeks the Bin Laden hit will be forgotten and America will be stuck with its problems. Too bad Obama can't just zap all of the problems like he did to Bin Laden.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:09 am |
    • SF

      I concur with you completely daaaave, he was murdered in cold blood without a trial and while unarmed. This is not the American way, at least I hope it is not or EVERYONE of us is in trouble.

      May 4, 2011 at 6:24 am |
    • Rene

      Agreed!

      May 4, 2011 at 6:31 am |
  19. j

    I agree. I feel uneasy. Maybe because too many years have passed. But what I think bothers me most is a man shot and killed him. We brought Hussein to trial. Why was this different. Does this lead to if we know someone is guilty of murder the cops can just put a bullet through his head and we will all go good job. Something just doesn't sit well about this.
    Don't get me wrong. I thought we could have gotten this guy a long time ago and try him for his crimes.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:08 am |
    • Blair

      If a suspect rushes a cop in a threatening manner, the cop will shoot him too. It's called self preservation. If you read the details of the raid, several people were there that were not killed. Only primary targets. Bin Laden made it clear he was not willing to surrender peacefully, and if he'd gotten his hands on any of the rifles or frags the SEALs had, the outcome would have been much different. As it is, 2 couriers, bin Laden, his eldest son, and a woman that was used as a human sheild were the only ones killed. So the short answer to why this was different than Saddam: Saddam realized he was caught and gave up. There was no firefight, he did not rush his captors. Osama did not give up peacefully, there was a 40 minute firefight prior to contact, and he charged the frogs.

      May 4, 2011 at 6:39 am |
  20. StaceyFlNative

    it should of been announced...justice bin Laden was shot and killed a news brief in 72 hrs, then the news brief with limited info and then the pres should of said now lets secure the borders.......this was made into a three ring circus

    May 4, 2011 at 6:06 am |
    • Rene

      I completely agree!

      May 4, 2011 at 6:26 am |
    • Simon Petrie

      I'd like to see people use 'should have' or 'should've' correctly, instead of "should of". When one offers an opinion in poorly crafted language or grammar, it casts a shadow over the value of speaker's comments.

      And the people who invariably denigrate the value of grammar are usually the greatest abusers of grammar and language . . .

      May 4, 2011 at 6:56 am |
    • StaceyFlNative

      Simon Petrie....do not pull a splinter out of my eye when you have a telephone pole coming out of yours, but I will forgive you, you sound very beligerent and I will Pray for you. God Bless You Simon Petrie

      May 4, 2011 at 9:02 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.