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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. stillin

    Celebrating the death of anybody is so ignorant. Yes he was responsible for the death of innocent people but so is the U.S. and we involved in many deaths that will go unquestioned. It's so ignorant it really makes me wonder about the human race. I feel like the U.S. is the biggest bully ever, at times. We have killed many innocents all over the world, by mistake, by the wrong intelligence information..it's just wrong to celebrate death period. Karma will come into everybody's existance who plays a part in the death of others because it goes against how the universe works. trust that.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:59 am |
    • Patrick

      By your logic, he got his karmic justice.

      Also, by your logic, you're an idiot.

      Just saying.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:08 am |
    • Elrod

      Well, if you feel that way the beauty of a free and democratic society is that you can leave anytime you want! I uldn't want you to live in the land of such a monster and bully. Pick another country – I'm sure they have trees you can hug and surely someone knows kumbayah.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  2. maxkennedyuky

    God's word says about this: Proverbs 24:17-18 "Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the LORD see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him".

    May 4, 2011 at 7:58 am |
    • Patrick

      As the darkness takes you forever into it's abyss, you will, for a brief moment know you were not as significant as you believed in life.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:07 am |
  3. Greg

    It is easy to pontificate form your Ivory tower of acadamia.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:56 am |
  4. Dave

    As a Brit, I can view this with some degree of detatchment, although we also lost peoiple in 9/11 and of course 7/7. If you view the celebrations as glorifying the killing of a single human being then yes, maybe they are iinappropriate, but I would liken them to the VE day celebrations in the UK and the US after WW2. They were a celebration of a victory brought about by the killing of millions of soldiers and civilians, but surely nobody would begrudge the people that celebration? We need to allow ourselves to communally express relief and happiness that this man's influence in the world is no more – it's a human thing to do. There will be plenty of time for reflection over the coming weeks and months.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:56 am |
  5. john

    Very interesting take on the celebrations.

    While I must admit that the intensity of some of the partying I witnessed on TV made me at first cringe as well, this momentary uneasiness was quickly replaced by pride thanks to a reassuring realization. If bin laden had surrendered instead and was taken alive, the parties would have been no less intense. The smilies just as wide...the blood alcohol levels just as far over the legal limit. 🙂

    The spontaneous joy and celebration felt throughout the nation gives me great hope...hope that I have not felt in quite some time. This is not about an evil man's death; it is about the unity and strength of the free world.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:55 am |
  6. Elrod

    Are you kidding me? This man was responsible at least in part for dozens of terrorist attacks around the world. We set out to bring him to justice on or about September 12, 2001. This battle victory in the war on terror should be celebrated. The war is not over, but this is HUGE in the big picture of ridding this world of terrorists. Go hug a tree Mr. Prothero and sing a round of kumbayah – at least then you won't get in our way.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:55 am |
  7. Katrina

    I am thankful for this blog. I thought I was alone in feeling this way. I have been attacked verbally the past two days. I guess because the idea of celebrating death is something I just can not wrap my head around, I am a "stupid libetal", "unpatriotic" and just plain "stupid". Funny thing is, I thought it was what made me human.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:54 am |
    • Patrick

      If you were at peace with how you felt, you wouldn't need validation from a complete stranger. You feel this way because you're conditioned to feel like you should feel this way, nothing more.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:55 am |
  8. NJGirl

    The celebration was victory of good versus evil. I support what Daniel wrote; how lucky for you to sit in your insulated classroom and have celebral discussions on the righteousness of a nation who was attacked, unprovoked, innocents slaughtered and now has finally brought the criminal responsible for that slaughter to justice. How wonderfully lucky for you. If half of your well heeled students were suddenly drafted and sent off to the hills of Afghanistan would you feel differently? Or would you too be celebrating that perhaps now they may come home before they themselves are slaughtered. Grow up Mr. Prothero or better yet, stay in academia where you are safe from real life.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:53 am |
  9. Keith G

    Why should we not rejoice that evil has been defeated? Are you equally uneasy about watching the victory parades at the end of WW2?
    Terrorism has changed war. No longer do we have the ability to fight honorably on the field of battle against other nations. We have rich and powerful individuals convincing others that a deity wants them to kill people.
    They strike and hide, and have to be hunted down like the criminals they are. Most are captured, some are killed, and often another leader takes their place and continues the cycle.
    For years, Americans have built up frustration that Osama remained at large. Not only did he mastermind 9/11 but bragged about it. When he was killed, that frustration was released, and people rejoiced.
    When evil loses one of it’s champions, I feel completely justified in celebrating. Not in that a human being was killed, as this evil man was far from human.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:53 am |
    • James Woods

      What he did was wrong, but he was still human. I'm not saying we mourn his death and hold candlelight vigils, but it sets a bad example to the world about America. We are a country of freedom and justice. We don't let strong emotions control our actions.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:05 am |
  10. Patrick

    It's time for you to grow up. People are first and foremost celebrating the justice that has finally been done. Is that justice tied to his death? Yes, but the sense of joy they feel isn't because they wished to see another human being die (for the majority anyway), it's tied to the evil deeds that the human being who died has committed and the stopping of any future deeds of the like as well as the feeling that justice was done.

    If it makes you 'cringe' to see the celebration of the death of someone who truly was a monster in every sense, you need to grow up and step into the real world and out of your self righteous theological world. You're no better than anyone else. Deep down you wrote this 'article' to inflate your own ego because it somehow elevates you above the rest. You may have finished up with altruistic 'deep thoughts', but we all know that's not your real intent.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:52 am |
    • James Woods

      You say 'you are no better than anybody else'. That is exactly the reason to not be celebrating the death of anyone.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:00 am |
    • Patrick

      He was a monster. He killed thousands. He killed thousands of Americans, he killed many Muslims and all innocent. He killed them brutally, without mercy. I AM better than that man. Even you, with your safe and comfortable view of the world from within your protective bright and happy bubble, are better than him.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:03 am |
  11. maxkennedyuky

    Proverbs 24:17 Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: 18 Lest the LORD see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:51 am |
    • Frank

      Leave your 'morale of the story' tall tales to the books.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:54 am |
  12. infamous

    heres how i see it...yes be excited and rejoice however you want because we took out someone who was being hunted for 10+ years who KILLED thousands of AMERICANS (on our own soil and when we went in to find him) AND HIS OWN people...you all are upset and say it "made you cringe" when you saw the youth of america OUR FUTURE celebrate because the american military took out an enemy that ruined the lives and families of all those lost in 9/11...where is all you patriotism at? what happened to the time were our whole country rejoiced and celebrated because we took out a threat to the US? yes i understand more then some that the war is not over that someone will attempt to take Bin Laden's and i for one will rejoice when we take them out for taking lives of our military who have been FIGHTING THIS ENDLESS WAR for your freedom of speech...you call it bad manners, blood lust, and yes you may call it immoral to celebrate Osama Bin Laden's death...i call it PATRIOTISM and i for one am DAMN PROUD OF OUR MILITARY...i say celebrate how you like...if you think its an excuse for youth to party and skip school then thats your opinion but just remember...those youth who used his death as an excuse to party and skip school would be the son's and daughters fighting for your DAMN FREEDOM if the draft ever picked back up because this war got to out of control. How would you all react to that if a soldier came to your door and took your son or daughter off to be in the military because we need soldiers to fight his war? i bet you'd all support us then wouldn't you??? you all should take a step back and look at how we did things back in the old wars and see how excited and patriotic we were back then...if you hate how we celebrate now because we took out one of the most wanted men then maybe you all should move to a different country...im just saying though...you all are pathetic...god bless the military members who took him out and for the ones reading this that are celebrating...party on my friends...this is a victory for the american people

    May 4, 2011 at 7:50 am |
  13. Colette

    Frankly, I don't understand all the hand wringing about celebrating this man's death. He got what he deserved. Justice has been done. Quit trying to bring downt he celebrations.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:48 am |
  14. Steven

    I am reminded of the words that Jews say during Passover when remembering the Ten Plagues: "Judaism regards all people as children of G-d, even enemies who seek to destroy our people." And "...we do not rejoice over their downfall and defeat." I'm reminded of the unity we shared the days after 9/11 and hope that those feelings return. I'm thankful to the people who carried out the operation and grateful for our entire military. Now, let's move on as ONE country.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:47 am |
  15. forwardbias

    I have to agree with this opinion. It saddened me greatly to see people cheering and partying in the streets. I don't mourn his passing in the least but I think that we should be above this sort of celebrating and firing guns in the air sort of reaction.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:46 am |
  16. Daniel

    Mr. Prothero,

    You are so gravely mistaken. This celebration was not a celebration of death...but a celebration of the triumph of justice. I dont expect you to understand from the convince of your home computer. So go ahead and pontificate on the reflection of UBL death, but understand that there is an 18 year old man, charging the hills of afghanistan as we write who will do things and see things that will haunt him the rest of his life......so that you can sit in a class room or Starbucks and "cringe" at the celebration of triumph of justice. It astounds me, how "Americans" like you will comment on the triumph of justice..and but are to too coward to grab a weapon and help defend. Mr. Prothero, you are alive today, precisely because others have killed on your behalf.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:42 am |
    • James Woods

      Isn't it American to respect the freedom of others and how they feel or what they believe, even if you disagree? Since when have other Americans become your enemy of judgement? Your statement is quite sanctimonious.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:46 am |
    • Patrick

      No, it's American to disagree with you when we disagree with you. I don't have respect your point of view (and for the record, I don't), that's what's great about being me.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:00 am |
    • cecilia

      I am so sick of the line – that we are free because some young man or woman fought and died to keep us free. How about instead of sending our children to die we start working very hard to help create an America where our children do not have to do that for us, but instead are able to attend school and grow to become thoughtful compassionate people
      contrary to popular opinion, the Flag and the Bible are not one and the same

      May 4, 2011 at 8:12 am |
  17. Ma'am

    I am sick and tired of people "cringing" that we are celebrating a "death". It was disturbing to see the other countries celebrating the 9/11 deaths of innocent people, victims. We are celebrating the death of a terrorist, someone who sent us videos about wanting us dead and hating westerners. He is no different than Hitler and I would celebrate all over again. We are celebrating the death of a "bad guy" not the death of innocent people. If we were celebrating the death of killing innocent people, that is different, but this is apples and oranges, people!

    May 4, 2011 at 7:42 am |
    • James Woods

      No, no matter what actions, we are all God's children. Jesus would never celebrate the death of someone. We live by example and try to live in peace. Peace is not fueled by hate and revenge. Peace comes from peace.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:56 am |
    • Duke

      James Woods
      Sorry but it just dont work that way- Christians 0 and Lions 1000. HUmans have been killing each otehr for 10,000 years and yet the last 100 years have been the SAFEST for people in general- powerful will always oppress the weak- it is human nature, we can hope for better education and better parents but until them you cannot stop it

      May 4, 2011 at 8:03 am |
  18. Name*ATHIEST

    Geeze people. You are perpetuating the " sissyfying" of America.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:41 am |
    • Duke

      Same thing happened in Rome 200 AD

      May 4, 2011 at 8:00 am |
    • cecilia

      why do you and others believe in order to be a true American we have to have a kick butt reaction to everything. this is exactly why we went to war – the wrong war in the wrong place. why does a strong America have to be a violent America – wouldn't it be wonderful for America to be a thoughtful, compassionate, reasonable America.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:07 am |
  19. Shad

    Why are we even comparing. On 9/11, people in the mid east were celebrating the death of thousands of innocent civilians, who did nothing wrong but show up to work and board a plane to travel. Bin Laden was guilty of the innocent killing of thousands of innocent human beings. He was a murder who repeatedly killed and was proud of doing so.
    None of those celebrating Bin Laden's death were guilty of such crime and are all glad that evil man can no longer hurt us.

    Now, if the US had killed an innocent person and wf celebrated that, I could see why some would feel we are just as guilty ad them. But that is not the case. We celebrated that finally, the man responsible for thousands on innocent lives will no longer have the option to do do, and after 17 years of his terrorizing the world, he is gone.

    You fools are acting like we killed an innocent man and celebrated his death unjustly. I bet no one will dance and celebrate our own deaths, because we were never guilty of such evil.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:39 am |
    • James Woods

      We are Americans. Because someone else did it doesn't justify it. We are better than that. We don't celebrate the death of people and we don't demand gruesome pictures of a person dead to appease some morbid curiosity.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:53 am |
    • Clare Bernatsky

      My take on this is that although thousands were killed in the 9/11 atttacks, it is a mere pittens to the number of people we killed in the Iraq war. Furthermore, this country has spent billions of dollars to kill two men, and it has not done a thing to make the world a better place. Sorry, the whole hoopla makes me ill.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:56 am |
    • Dan

      Well said

      May 4, 2011 at 8:15 am |
  20. MichaelOne

    It is quite natural to celebrate the erasure of this evil being from existence without actually hating him, if that bothers you touchhy-feely types.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:39 am |
    • George

      How? Please explain.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:49 am |
    • Tim

      the author insinuates all people celebrating Bin Laden's death were "drunken and mindless". That would be analogous to me stating those that did not were treasonous.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:50 am |
    • Duke

      many to this day celebrate the demise of Hitler, Sadam, Stalin, Mao and soon to be Fidel Castro – Millions were celebrating in EVERY country in the world when 9/11 happened- fire works went off in many German, French etc neiborhoods for hours and sure many were dancing in their homes in USA
      People that forget their past HAVE NO FUTURE

      May 4, 2011 at 7:58 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.