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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. mekmind

    Your a fool! The death celabrations were in honor us. What our great nation can acomplish, united together against our enemy. Not the death of one man, but the resolve of our entire nation.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  2. Jason

    To many people who are anti-American, 9/11 was "justice" for our support of Arab dictators who repress their people and blame the US and Israel for all their problems. It was a punch in the nose and it caused many people to celebrate even though thousands of innocent people died. In turn we waged a war where thousands of innocent people died including many of our soldiers. We should reflect on this terrorist's death and ask how we can change our policies and what we can do to stop future terrorists like him. Wildly celebrating his death doesn't do anything to achieve this goal. These college kids look like the Palestinian youths who celebrated 9-11. His death was necessary but there is no reason to celebrate our own ignorance and complicity in this war.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  3. Dave

    There is nothing wrong with celebrating the death of pure evil.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  4. Dennis

    I disagree with the author.There was no rioting or burning of property.No bodies were beheaded,nor were corpses drug through the streets.No yelling "God is Great"(Allahu Akbar)...After 10+ years of him celebratng massive American deaths,why should the American people not celebrate the death of this evil devil?..I'll have a drink today to celebrate the death of this monster.Allahu Akbar!!!

    May 4, 2011 at 10:19 am |
  5. TheTRUTH

    ITS ALL A GAME AND THEY PLAY IT FOR MONEY!!! all of it 911 a GAME DESERT STORM, GAME! ALL FOR MONEY AND OIL GAME. let's see who becomes the next BOOGIEMAN!!!

    May 4, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  6. Joanna

    In the bible, the book of Esther you will note that after eveil Mordecai was killed Queen Esther and the people began the tradition of the joyous holiday Purim. I hope your students study for themselves and don't follow in your "sulking" that he was killed under Obamas administration and not your choice of administration which is most likely your real issue with this.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  7. SV

    It made me cringe too. And I felt a bit ackward when someone described in detail with a huge smile how many bullets he was killed with and where those bullets went. As human beings, we all have feelings of agression and we need to express them one way or another. Those celebrating and partying found their way. For those who cringe, they use different avenues to express their agression – each in their own way. It is comforting to know, though, that I am not the only "weird" one that doesn't feel like partying in the streets. Thanks for the article.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  8. DinkyDau Billy

    Yeah, I think you've got a good point here, Steve-O. My first reaction to the news was "I hope the SOB burns in hell for all eternity." Then I saw a post over on Alise Writes that got me to thinking about that reaction. If one claims to be a 'practising' Christian – that is, one who aspires to embrace Christ's teachings, as inadequate as that aspiration may be – then gleefully celebrating this POS' death is a bit over the top. Killing OBL was very much in accordance with the concept of waging Just War. It isn't that he was killed that's the issue. He needed to be killed. I'm pleased that it went down the way it did. OBL is dead and none of the SEALs are. But it's the celebration in such a crass way that puts me off. Kind of puts the skids to the concept of "This is a Christian nation", don't you think? I've noticed that many posters rationalize it as a 'celebration' of justice being done. Do you guys really believe that? http://lajuntablog.blogspot.com/2011/05/more-on-dancin-in-streets.html and http://lajuntablog.blogspot.com/2011/05/christian-perspective-on-demise-of-obl.html have a bit more on this with a couple of good cross-references. As always, thanks for listening. Or reading, in this case.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  9. Reality.....

    What bothers and concerns me more is the in inability of the author and others to properly compare and contrast the killling of OBL versus the dilebert killing of 3000 plus US civilians, 1000's of muslim and jewish civilians (inlcuding many children). I don't know if you all have been keeping up with current events, but this guy was for religous and ethnic cleansing and practiced it quite well......with no regard to how he and his followers slaughtered and disposed of his victims....

    May 4, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  10. Just Me

    They weren't celebrating his DEATH they were celebrating the fact that he can no longer kill millions of people. He has been stopped. Will there be others? Probably, but at least "the head of the snake" has been cut off. If anyone deserved to die, it was him. He killed thousands of US citizens who were spending their day like millions of others, going to work, taking their children to daycare, shopping, etc. They hadn't even thought of HIM that day, yet he thought to kill them and many muslims danced in the streets with joy. They wanted many MORE dead. The US celebrated because we don't want anymore dead and his death will definitely have an effect of more people, innocent people, having life. So actually it was LIFE that was being celebrated, not death.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  11. starbucksjunkie

    Well, we were united, for a split second. Now we are using our varying reactions to bin Laden's death as a litmus test, or a reason to drive yet another wedge between us. Just let it be.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  12. Alex

    I am grateful this author had the guts to write this article. As a physician who has seen death too many times, I do not celebrate the death of any human being – no matter how heinous. I, too, cringed at the events on Sunday night. Should we celebrate with raucous parties outside of a prison after a death row inmate is put to death? I agree with the author that these opportunities should be reserved for reflection: on good and evil, on mortality and on justice. What separates us from much of the animal kingdom is our ability to think, to suppress instinct, and to love. Any Christian who thinks celebrating Osama bin Laden's death is just needs to read the Bible. And I believe that people who want to celebrate the death of another human being need to consider that they are drawing themselves ever-closer to the barbarism that humanity has fought to overcome for thousands of years.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  13. conoclast

    I'm glad to hear there are more than just a few of us "cringers". The celebrations over bin Laden's killing (murder is the more accurate word) only demonstrate how much like our adversaries we've become over the past 10 years and that is troubling.
    Rather than wildly cheering our having stooped-to-conquer we should take a long look at ourselves and what we've become as a result of 9/11.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  14. sam

    This is stupid if the world were to announce that hitler had been killed I bet everybody would be partying. This man killed fellow human beings and in doing so he lost any shred of humanity he had. I say do what you want this guy derseved what he got.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • Cronus

      I agree, Bin laden got what he desrved and we should not feel bad about being happy that he is gone.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  15. Jess Dee

    Read between the lines people. This just brought back a lot of painful memories for a lot of American's who lost people they love on 9/11 and to the famililes of people whom have been killed in the war. I didnot, will not and will NEVER celebrate this "mans" death, he is nothing to me. Indeed, it is a victory that it took nearly 10 years to find him and kill him. But now even in death, he is a popular as he was then and always will be. This is history, this is real, so many people died because of osama, do you really have the decency to party and wave your flags over the death of a man who caused the death of a million men, In the U.S. of A and during the war, which is still happeneing. Did you forget? Everyday you wake up and because of osama, we are still at war on terrorism? Stop and think about it once in awhile. It's not something you can forget. It's a deep, deep wound for people who really did lose their loved ones on 9/11 and throughout this war. Show some respect for the people that have to re-live this each day.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • f

      Just like the courtroom scenes of victims' families reacting to the murderer being sentenced to death, the American public reacted the same way. It is absolutely correct for these folks to celebrate the BEGINNING of the end of the long war on terror.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:16 am |
    • Jess Dee

      Yeah, go get yourself a beer and celebrate!
      The war isn't over and won't be, this isn't the BEGINNING, it's just going to continue.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  16. Mike - Dayton, OH

    For a supposed academic discussion this scholar seems to have generated some incredibly shallow conclusions. The outpouring of people to various public places around the country is a great more complicated than just a bunch of young person celebrating death. He seems to have avoided the entire social psychology of this incident. More than just the assasination of an enemy, the death of Bin Laden is a symbolic bookend to a national trauma. It is the spontaneously emotional and cathartic reaction to revisiting the horrors of that day and starting the real process of closure that has literally been an open wound for almost a decade. That is what truly drives the so-called celebration. It is also tied into our collective decade-long and growing anxiety of national decline following so many tragedies, crises, wars and the rise of other global powers. This incident provides an all-too-rare moment for us to feel that as a nation we can still collectively achieve something great and that we can still positively affect our own destiny. Far from some venegeful bloodlust, this is the real basis of those celebrations. It is human and emotional. And it is right.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  17. Will

    I fully understand most of the reaction, celebration, jubilation etc. in my heart, I felt relief and pride and truly believe justice was served. I would describe myself as almost feeling happy. I would not be critical of anyone's reaction, individual or collective. But that does not mean it isn't a worthwhile discussion to engage in. It's good to be reflective and critical, just not judgmental or accusatory. The author was cautious and thoughtful in his criticism and simply attempted to illustrate that there are always multiple perspectives, all of which provide insight and understanding of the human condition.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:08 am |
  18. imho44

    Celebration of death is not uncommon at all. Not always comes as a public manifestation like in the last few days, but is always there. Not everything that is good comes from something we like or wanted, but that doesn't make the good any less so. The end of the painful ilness of a loved one, the quiet goodbye of a friend whose medical bills had brought poverty to his family, the inheritance coming from an almost unknown rich aunt, all those deaths bring, along with the reflexion and sorrow, also the sense of relief or even happiness. We don't celebrate the death itself, we celebrate what that death brings. Osama's death has made the world a better place to live, that brings us hope and that is a cause of celebration.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  19. Eric Jensen

    A few thoughts. FIrst of all, the death of Bin Laden was a military victory. There is a difference between military target, civilian target, and civilian collateral damage. Al Quaida tries to blur the lines to uneducated people. To compare our celebrations to those in the middle east who celebrated 9-11 is unfair. Additionaly most of the Arab and Muslim world turned on Osama after he started murdering Muslims.

    We celebrated the end of WWII also. There was a lot more death in that war. It is almost unfathomable really. Achieving a military objective that might end the entire ordeal, is a big deal.

    I just find that focusing on the death of a man is narrow minded to what it all really means.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Punjab83

      Well said. Thank you.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • f

      1000% correct.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:13 am |
    • Dave

      Maybe unfair to compare them, but Americans should still behave better.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:14 am |
    • kman02

      I clicked to reply and couldn't think of anything to add, so I added this. Well said. Logical, organized, and splendidly stated.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:20 am |
  20. Lisa

    I agree with the author. We became what we despised about them. Drunk college kids jumping around like fools partying have no clue what 9/11 did to this country. I am glad bin Laden is gone. Its not a reason to break out a keg. Those kids are an embarassement.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • RKT

      I agree.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:11 am |
    • f

      LISA – you are very wrong.. Many of those kids in college had parents who died on 9/11 in the NYC area. They have been greatly affected by the 9/11events and they did not forget. People the author who think we should somehow pay respect to OBL are out of thier minds. OBL and Al Quaeda killed over 3,000 people. Get a grip.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • Chareth_Cutestory

      Yeah, screw you. I know so many kids in college now whose parents were killed in 9/11. They were probably affected a hell of a lot more than you were.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Reg

      I can see both sides. Celebrate the victory! Celebrating the death..i'm not that filled with hatred at this point. Maybe it would be different if had been a cruise missle attack and we were not so sure. The thousands in WTC were not armed when the attack came from the sky. There are advantages and disadvantages of all the options our President had. He took what must have been the best one. It's Wednesday, way past Monday morning quarterbacking. Look forward.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:30 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.