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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. John

    Are we no better than when they celbrated and cheered in the streets over the death of american soldiers.. We are acting as if its a superbowl touchdown or something.. If we preach that we are more civil than the enemy.. wouldnt it be wise to act as such? Or will we once again show the world a negative side?

    Navy vet 88-93

    May 4, 2011 at 10:53 am |
  2. dpr69

    People dont respect life... what makes you think they respect death

    May 4, 2011 at 10:52 am |
  3. Amy

    The human race hide their ghosts behind a religion, will make more sense to go to therapy instead!
    OBL was crazy as hell but I won't never celebrate death, NEVER.
    I am not affiliate to any religion at all and I don't need a bible or whatever book to teach me that, my brain can do that equation by itself.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  4. Sarah

    FINALLY. An op-ed that expresses everything I have been trying to express these past few days but have only gotten flack for. Obviously I know Osama was a very bad person that caused a lot of suffering, but in terms of "justice," most families of victims report no sense of it being felt, because nothing will bring their loved ones back. What makes us better than people like Osama is our ability to utilize reason and humanity over hatred and vengeance to realize that there is no good that comes out of celebrating death.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  5. Tonya

    Thank you I also felt uneasy. Not happy at death of another human but also hopeful that perhaps the evil he generated will stop.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  6. BldrRepublican

    The absence of celebration after OBL's death would not change al Qaida's mission. There appears to be massive hypocrisy when we must be "concerned" about how they feel towards us, yet students decry that fact that we are "becoming just like them" when we celebrate. I have no problem sinking to their "level" to defeat them. We now have them on the run. I say hit them again – in Pakistan. Occupy the "tribal" regions where the Taliban are and make an example of them using all means necessary – even pigs blood. I don't care one iota for these people nor what they think of us.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:50 am |
  7. jon

    Palestinians were passing out sweets when news of the destruction of the Twin Towers reached the Middle East. It's only natural that nearly a decade later Americans want to unite in a mild celebration at some positive news to come out of this long and costly war. Everyone knows it's not the end of the war, but it's certainly a relief to be rid of him and who has the right to prevent the family member of a 9/11 victim and/or fallen soldier from the Afghan war for having something to be joyous about?

    We were TOO civilized with the handling of his death if you asked me. I'd have preferred it if they hanged his carcass along the fence at Ground Zero for the families of the victims to spit on and throw things at – then take it down and invite the homeless to urinate and defecate on it – and finally launch it out of a cannon into the side of the new Freedom Tower construction. We gave him a dignified funeral that an Arabian Prince would appreciate. That's being civilized.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:49 am |
  8. Katie

    "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?"
    This is exactly what I was thinking on Sunday. I couldn't, and still won't, celebrate. It seems terribly inappropriate to celebrate anyone's death. I support the mission, just not the disgusting, drunken celebrations by foolish Americans that followed the announcement.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:48 am |
    • BldrRepublican

      So, you've just admitted to being ethnocentric. If you are "disgusted" at Americans "behaving just like they did", you are implying we are somehow "better". Is that what you personally believe?

      May 4, 2011 at 10:51 am |
    • dpr69

      BldrRepublican... are you saying it's not ok to try to be better? Should we all only be as strong as our weakest links?

      May 4, 2011 at 10:54 am |
  9. Mary Texas

    Bin Laden's death should be celebrated as Hitler or Stalin's death was celebrated. They were all sociopaths. 3% of the human population are sociopaths. The other 97% of us are better off if we can identify, corral, and subdue the sociopaths among us. The really bad sociopaths deserve to be killed. They have been derailing our progress toward a sustainable human society on the planet for centuries. I say celebrate. One more down. Many more to go.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  10. I Remember

    What if Oswald had escaped capture till 1972 0r 1973? Would,nt we celebrate his demise? It is a celebration of the end of FEAR! Maybe not totally, but at least a beginning. I remember the Fall of the Berlin Wall as the same tipping point in history.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:48 am |
  11. Des

    This essay eloquently expresses how I have reacted to the vulgar displays, too. We needn't be religious to be moral.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  12. AK

    I understand this reaction and I am somehow supportive.
    You can't celebrate someone's death, it is inhumane, unethical, and most of all it degrades your values and respect for human life. Of course one will feel a relief because OBL is no longer a threat. This is by itself a good thing, however that does not justify partying and getting drunk. I even doubt that those who did that ever felt threatened. So it is some kind of craziness that took the people.
    In here i would like to point some terms used by the military which is "target "secured or neutralized". While it is a real killing the morale of using those terms is to say the target poses no threats anymore.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:47 am |
  13. Allen R

    On 9/11 I was an employee of one of the airlines involved in the attacks. My coworkers died as the hijacked planes crashed. The following year saw ghastly pay cuts, layoffs and my airline nearly going out of business, al due entirely to the 9/11 attacks, causing me to have to give up my airline career with a heavy heart. Like most airline employees now in a permanently changed and worse-off industry, I had a very personal reason to hate Osama bin Laden and pray for his quick (and preferably agonizing) demise.

    However, seeing the crass celebrations on TV made me cringe a bit too. I had the same thought as the one mentioned in this article. For a decade we've been at war with radical Islam, with the basic mentality that we are better, fairer, and more respectful of human life than they are. By drunkenly chanting in the streets after bin Laden's death, it looked like we had BECOME them...civility, class and good taste flew right out the window.

    Yes, it is wonderful that the world is free of such a vile, evil, worthless piece of human garbage as bin Laden. But as we react to that knowledge, let's not forget that, in the end, we are better than the Muslim extremists...and let's not emulate them.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  14. Michelle

    The faces of people celebrating his death (let's be honest here) remind me of faces of people in lynching photos from the days gone by. Repulsive.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Ryan in Michigan

      Based on your post, we could probably find your face among those celebrating in the September 11 attacks back in 2001.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  15. think

    Perhaps people forget osama killed no one, he,mearly sent others to do his dirty work

    May 4, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Joe

      like Hitler?

      May 4, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Ryan in Michigan

      So ... we should have let him live so he "couldn't" kill any more innocent people?

      May 4, 2011 at 11:06 am |
  16. JD

    What a wimp. I would be embarrased to write something like that, but I am sure it makes him feel like he is somehow a better person because of it. LOL. Stay in your sheltered little world Stephen and everything will be OK.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • AH

      Wimp? I think it takes greater courage to examine yourself than to blindly give in to primitive passions. Revenge was served and some people question whether it is "human" to revel in it. If you subscribe to the same principles as Osama Bin Laden, where the ends justify the means, then you should have no problem stepping on your enemy's corpse. If on the other hand, you believe that Osama Bin Laden, like HItler and Stalin, represented a level of humanity to which we should never sink, then questioning such death celebrations is both appropriate and necessary.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • Jessie S.

      AH forgets that giving people silly little lectures, from a self delusional pulpit, to make himself feel "courageous", is itself a ..."primitive passion." And, yes the author is indeed a wimp. He didn't have the self awareness to understand that people would be able to see right through it.

      May 5, 2011 at 1:12 am |
  17. Susan

    I too felt uneasy with the general reaction to the announcement. It just felt wrong to see the citizens of a nation that is supposed to stand for freedom and justice celebrating an assassination. I'd never try and argue that killing Bin Laden wasn't the "right" thing to do but this military action makes me feel uncomfortable, more than anything else. Everyone wants to live in a world where good triumphs over evil but what essential part of ourselves must we compromise to obtain that victory? Celebrating anything at this point is also premature. Only with the passage of time will we know whether eliminating this central figure has moved us towards a greater good or sowed seeds for the next disaster.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:45 am |
  18. Bill

    According to the Book of Esther, Haman, royal vizier to King Ahasuerus planned to kill the Jews, but his plans were foiled by Mordechai and Queen Esther. The day of deliverance became a day of feasting and rejoicing.
    America and the World, let's celebrate !!! no, the threat is not over, but this is a huge victory.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:44 am |
  19. alicee

    I am also hesitant to celebrate. Sure, justice was served. But I don't think there's no way to compensate for the thousands who died on 9/11 through the single death of Bin Laden. I would also be cautious to celebrate as there still remains the threat of other terrorism.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:43 am |
  20. jkINC

    Celebrations on the elimination of an enemy have always been a part of war. Celebrations of battles and wars won is a natural response, regardless if the death toll is 1 or 10,001. It really isn't the celebration of death but the celebration of victory over an enemy and in this case the ideological leader who started the war. Applying logic and humanity to war is impossible, the entire concept is illogical and inhuman.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:42 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.