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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. ann

    I did not celebrate his death. But I do celebrate that he at least would no longer be in a position to hurt others or influence others to do so. That his legacy has been put to a stop at least partially. I do not think it is wrong to celebrate when evil is put to a halt. Would I have preferred if it could have been accomplished without death, sure. But the reality is that in this case he did die. Should I then be ashamed to be happy that al qaeda has been hampered? No. Should we be worried that the other countries misinterpret our happiness? perhaps. But what else can be done?

    May 4, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  2. kerry b

    I feel the same way. This isn't your favorite football teams superbowl victory. His crimes were heinous but he is still human with a creed and family. It was just as tacky as Westboro picketing a funeral of a soldier.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  3. Ben

    With all do respect, you have been brought up too sheltered

    May 4, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  4. Brooke Webster

    Cops and firemen are still DYING from the after effects of the World Trade Center terrorist attack and this guy Prothero is agonizing over people's understandable jubilation at the death of this nihistic creep? Is he for real? A blow was struck for civilization and people have every right to brejoice.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:07 am |
  5. JLP

    If we are the best country in the world,to celebrate OBL`s death is not in keeping with our standards of conduct. I , like most Americans, are happy that we finaly got this monster but to celebrating death is not who we are.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:05 am |
    • Ellex

      No it isn't. I felt embarrassed how so many young people my own age were making it into a party, it isn't. We brought justice to him, which is a very good thing, but turning it into a celebration is just silly and extremely childish...it's not an appropriate reaction when concerning anyones death. If the families of 9/11 victims want to throw back some beers and cheer it up then thats fine, but these people are just cringe-worthy.

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

      Maybe you were too young to completely understand what happened on 9/11? Maybe in elementary school? It is justified to celebrate the death of this monster. It's called human nature.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  6. Ryan in Michigan

    Also, our celebrations aren't anything like the celebrations they held overseas after the attacks on September 11, 2001. They were burning American flags, killing nuns, firing rifles into the air, and chanting "Death to America!" We're simply gathering together, singing the national anthem, and crying and hugging our loved ones in relief.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:04 am |
  7. Paulo Carvalho

    Excelent article, I share your view from the first moment.
    Cellebrating one's death, even an odious terrorist, is low, cheap and makes you look like one of them.
    Hope America starts realizing why people around the world (not only islamic extremists) hate the US nowadays.

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

    Proverbs 24:17 Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, And do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles;
    18 Lest the LORD see it, and it displease Him, And He turn away His wrath from him.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:02 am |
    • Jessie S.

      So, ...let me understand this: Don't show wrath toward your enemy, if you indeed want God to maintain his wrath toward your enemy. Is that it? Is that wrath by PROXY, or something? What hypocritical nonsense. The Bible can be so silly, sometimes.

      May 5, 2011 at 1:19 am |
  9. Candace

    Michael,
    I could not have said it better. Pathetic. And sad.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:01 am |
  10. Molly

    Very interesting article. My boyfriend and I watched the partying on tv and questioned it ourselves. Also, I took Professor Prothero's Death and Immortality course while at BU myself (I believe I took it in in 2004 or 2005). It was just wonderful. Thanks again Professor!

    May 4, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  11. Carmen

    Celebration of death, whoever death it may be, is never appropriate.

    John Donne's poem said it best:

    "......Each man's death diminishes me,
    For I am involved in mankind.
    Therefore, send not to know
    For whom the bell tolls,
    It tolls for thee."

    May 4, 2011 at 10:59 am |
    • Ken Bradshaw

      Is it possible to accept this as a wonderful poem for the poor, abuse and down trodden, but not accept it for mass muderers? I liken this to cutting out a cancer so that a body can heal. That's not as poetic, but I think it is a better fit. Ken

      May 4, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
  12. Birther 2d max

    So they interrupted their discussion on how great assisted suicide is and the endless possibilities of government euthanasia to discuss the evils of killing Osama bin laden. If they don't like this great and wonderful action taken by our foreign born president, and yes I give him some credit and koodos, then they don't have to vote for him. I know I won't but yea for Obama today.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:58 am |
    • goss

      Aren't you birthers, now deathers and asking for Osama's long form death certificate? Foreign born Pres , huh? doh

      May 4, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  13. Ken Bradshaw

    Through out the ages, there have been circles of people more concern about their image than about others. That is what you are doing here. In the middle of most peoples joy, you choose to remind them that you are above it all, that your thoughts are so pure that you can't possible find joy in the death of an enemy who so profoundly threaten our existence. You do not know their hearts, yet you choose to contrast them with yours. I believe that one can rejoice over the death of evil and while its good to withhold judgement in most cases, It's not good, always. Tomorrow, these people will be back to being good people and you will still be a straight-jacketed by your own pretensions.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:57 am |
  14. dan

    what a moron. why would we not celebrate the death of someone who killed thousands.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Guest

      The author sounds like a PARTY POOPER !

      May 4, 2011 at 11:32 am |
  15. Carl

    "Have we become, she and I thought, like them?"

    Does this guy really see no defining characteristics of terrorists other than their tendency to rally in the streets?

    Stephen Prothero's inability to distinguish between the good guys and "a fellow human being" who preached hatred based on religious division should be considered a psychiatric disorder. If it's all the same to him, he can go join al Qaeda and cease infecting our universities with moral nihilism.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:56 am |
    • Paulo Carvalho

      Believe me, if you feel he's that stupid for thinking like this, then you shouldn't worry about muslims or terrorists. I'm quite sure lot's of people around the world think the same way. I'm just one of them and I'm an atheist from a Portuguese catholic family. Many people here see this as just another idiot act from a country seen more as a bully than anything else. It all comes down to this.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:08 am |
    • ScoSo

      Carl, you just hit the nail on the head....Thank you!

      May 4, 2011 at 11:23 am |
  16. hoofleau

    Stephen Prothero shouldn't worry or even raise consciousness on this jubilation. It's a completely normal human reaction.
    Examples:1) Ding Dong the wicked witch is dead. 2) Italians celebrating the death of Mussolini 3) people applauding when Jeff Dahmer was killed in prison 4) the fictional killing of a dragon that has caused death and terrorized a township for many years.
    This is part of human nature. Did America and it's allies cry when Hitler committed suicide? No. It's a celebration of the death of evil, that life will be better without that evil.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:56 am |
  17. Marc in Iowa

    As a Christian, I especially liked the contrast of the students quote – "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." to that of Jesus' "But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven." May God's Spirit empower us to love so.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Dennis

      Amen

      May 4, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  18. goss

    Osama bin Laden was responsible for over 3,000+ deaths on 9/11. How can anyone NOT celebrate his death? He destroyed families and took away Mothers & Fathers from children. Wake up and remember 9/11/01!

    May 4, 2011 at 10:55 am |
    • Ellex

      Okay Rudy, we get it. No need to post on comments sections.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  19. Dan

    Good morning my liberal friend thank god you are not deciding America's fate because some other country would be celebrating our demise. THIS DISGUSTING PIECE OF GARBAGE; I AM GALD TO SAY I REPEAT I AM GLAD TO SAY IS NO MORE THANKS TO THE DECISION OF OUR PRESIDENT. YOU HAVE A LOT OF NERVE COMMENTING ABOUT OUR CELEBRATIONS WHEN IN FACT FOR AS LONG AS I CAN REMEMBER OUR RADICAL MUSLIM FRIENDS CELEBRATE CONSTANTLY WHEN THEY DO SOMETHING TO US. WHY ARENT YOU COMMENTING ON THAT? WHY ARE YOU COMMENTING ON OUR CELEBRATION THAT IS DESERVING FOR THE PAST 10 YRS? WHY ARE YOU SHOWING SYMPATHY FOR THIS HUMAN GARBAGE THAT THE NAVY SEALS STOPPED DEAD IN ITS TRACKS? WHY NOT SHOW SYMPATHY FOR 2700 VICTIMS FAMILIES THAT LOST LOVED ONES ON 9/11. THIS JUSTICE IS LONG OVER DUE AND YOU HAVE THE NERVE TO COME ON CNN AND COMMENT ABOUT HOW WE CELEBRATE. DO US ALL A FAVOR AND TAKE A FIELD TRIP TO ONE OF OUR FAVORITE ENEMIES COUNTRIES AND TELL US HOW THEY TREAT AMERICANS. IF YOU THINK FOR ONE SECOND THEY WILL BE FAIR WITH YOU YOU HAVE ANOTHER THING COMING. I HOPE ONE DAY YOU WAKE UP FROM YOUR EUPHORIC DREAM AND JOIN US IN THE REAL WORLD WHERE EUPHORIA DOESNT EXIST. IT IS ONLY BEING PERSUED AND LONG TIME FROM COMING. ITS OK BECAUSE THIS IS AMERICA YOU ARE ALLOWED TO FEEL THIS BECAUSE AMERICA LETS YOU ACT AND FEEL THIS WAY. YOU HAVE TO EXCUSE THE REST OF US AS WE ARE NOT AS ENLIGHTENED AS YOU ARE. MY DIAGNOSIS FOR YOU IS LIBERALISM. THE SIDE EFFECTS YOU ARE EXPERIENCING SEEMS TO BE CAUSIING YOU HAVE TO HAVE A MENTAL DISORDER. ONCE AGAIN I AM SO HAPPY TO KNOW THIS HUMAN TRASH IS SWIMMING WITH THE FISHES.. I am going to celebrate as much as i can totaling 10yrs worth. Sorry if this offends you because I DONT CARE WHAT YOU THINK!!!!!. I can finally mourn the loss of friends who worked for Sandler O'neill on The 104TH floor of the World Trade Center south Tower on that day 9/11/01.. I WONT BE MOURNING THE LOSS OF OSAMA AS YOU SEEM TO BE DOING. IF THIS OFFENDS YOU I DONT CARE.. I GET MY JUSTICE THAT IS DESERVING AND LONG OVERDUE.. FINALLY JUSTICE HAS BEEN SERVED!!!!

    May 4, 2011 at 10:54 am |
    • tewrobert

      A-men 🙂 God Bless America.
      It actually gave me a warm feeling........
      The radicals can dish it out but they cannot take it LOL

      May 4, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • John

      I agree 100%

      If you can't see the patriotism and pride on our celebrations than turn the TV OFF!
      It was an amazing day and the fact that OBL was killed by a US Squad makes it even more sweeter. For those who think one shouldn't celebrate anothers death needs to stop treating OBL like he was human... the guy was a monster who terrorized the world! Americans are the only ones in the entire world who would have gave this POS a proper religious burial. If the shoe was on the other foot our journalists and soldiers get beheaded or paraded down the street in afgahnaistan or pakistan. America is the greatest country in the world and lets not take our foot off the pedal and bury the rest of these terrorists!. U-S-A! and thanks again to all the troops stationed across the world we seem to sometimes forget with the hustle bustle of everyday life how much you guys sacrifice to make our lives comfortable and we thank and pray for you everyday.

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

      The point is they are wrong to celebrate and so are we. If we become them, they win.

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

      Yikes. Relax.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • Jeff

      Saw all those capital letters and just moved right pass your comment. Hmmmm....I wonder if you said anything pertinent. I'll never know.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:11 am |
    • Ryan

      You're a moron. His point is that celebrating the death of another is not the most humane, dignified thing to do. And as we were found it disgusting to see some radical Muslims celebrating 9/11 ten years ago, we should also find it disgusting and hypocritical that Americans are dancing around a fire with a severed head like some primitive cave men. We are a dignified people and should behave that way.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Aldo

      Wow Dan!...that is a lot of anger...you definitely need to be doing some reflecting...

      May 4, 2011 at 11:15 am |
    • John

      dancing around a fire with a severed head?? did we miss that. Dont try to make the celebrations more than they were seriously.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Ryan

      And furthermore, I don't think killing one man is even close to justice for killing 3000, not to mention those killed in war. There is little reason to celebrate here. Breathe a quiet sigh of relief, maybe.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  20. Michael

    For everyone celebrating "justice", it came at the price of 20,000 innocent civilians in Afghanistan, and 100,000 in Iraq. You are ignorant, selfish, hyporcritical, small-minded jerks who don't even know the meaning of that word. I don't pretend to care more about a hundred thousand dead Iraqis than I do about 3000 dead Americans, but justice? Pathetic. Grow the hell up.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:53 am |
    • RGeneration

      FOR ALL I CARE. Osama is responsible for the deaths of not only 3000 Americans but also countless others across the globe. This celebration is much due. America shouldn't infact be celebrating alone. The muslim world too should be celebrating. I can't understand why people think this is or should be just an American celebration. Are you sooooo numb to what Osama has caused to your own countries and your own citizens? Celebrate people. We've just gotten rid of another Hilter.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:00 am |
    • Ryan in Michigan

      You are such a pathetic idiot, it's laughable. Turn your traitorous hide around and go back to Pakistan, Michael. You seem to forget that those 20,000 innocent civilians were killed by the orders of this man, as were countless others in countries around the world. His death will save thousands of innocent lives, including, possibly, your own. You probably wish Hitler was still alive too, so you could join his Third Reich. Much more your style than the freedom Americans enjoy.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:24 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.