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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. Lee

    Stand up and be a man instead of cowering like a mouse. People like you won't take a stand on anything because you are afraid of others. Your disgusting and you do nothing for your country.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • steven harnack

      Pretty obviously he did just take a stand on something. It's your failure to understand something that simple that is turning this country into an idiocracy.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • HeavenSent

      steve, what's the matter? You anti-social personalities don't like to be uncovered and taken down?

      You complain too much? Why is that?

      Amen.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:13 pm |
  2. Andy

    Cringe when people celebrate? This guy was a mass murderer, let American's celebrate this amazing accomplishment. PS Grow a pair

    May 4, 2011 at 11:26 am |
  3. locdvegan

    couldn't have said it better myself...celebrations were being posted by a few on my facebook and on the other side, a few friends felt it inappropriate to be happy that someone was dead (reminds me of when M.J. passed away)...i find no joy in anyone being killed and question any Christian's beliefs that justify this...to kill with the intent to kill is murder and murder is wrong and i agree that we look no better than the people in the videos we've seen of people celebrating after the 9/11 attacks...and we shouldn't feel relieved but more frightened (and aware and prepared) b/c of the possibility of retaliation...it's a vicious cycle that needs to be stopped...

    May 4, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • HeavenSent

      locdvegan. Pre-meditated murder is wrong. Bin Laden pre-meditated all his strategies to ensure innocent people were murdered. Our military protect our freedom because you milly mouths are worthless to even get out of your own way, never mind protect our country. Bin laden was a monster with no emotions. If you want to know what Jesus says in the Bible, get off your lazy butt and read it and stop listening to the blind, leading you other blind. Your generation has been conditioned to not knowing what good is or what evil is. Oh, but you'll debate it to death and still not do anything.

      Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!

      Isaiah 5:20

      Amen.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  4. Todd

    I believe the reactions would have been the same had we captured him and not killed him. It was a small but important step in this struggle.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • HeavenSent

      And do what Todd? Try and get truth out of a psychopath? LOL. Go on the net and look up the word psychopath. It will tell you, besides the following that they are DEVOID of any/all emotions. Do you believe if bin Laden had any emotions he could do what he did to innocent people?

      Get a brain. Then use it.

      Amen.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  5. ScottJoh

    Another religious jack ass who doesn't live in the real world F-Him

    May 4, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • HeavenSent

      ScottJoh, Christians do. Non-believer sit and complain about everything and anything and do NOTHING.

      You're a joke. As well as all your foolish non-believers.

      Amen.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  6. brown

    Oh please, spare us all the B.S. spouting from your mouth. You cringed while observing the death parties because of your
    fear of offending the Muslim world. It is your kind of sheeple who don't deserve to be free!

    This is a war we are fighting, not some police action! Grow a pair of balls sheeple!

    May 4, 2011 at 11:25 am |
    • SeanNJ

      You're an idiot.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:44 am |
    • jj

      The war, you speak of, is ideological and you cannot win. History is rife with people who became more powerful for their cause AFTER their death – Jesus, Ghandi, MLK, Obi Wan. The best that can happen is that you and your kind will realize your hopes and dreams by killing each other off.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • HeavenSent

      jj, since you never read the Bible, but quote Jesus, let me tell you this fact. There will be no peace in the world until Jesus comes back and destroys evil. Until then, brave men and women fight for your freedom which includes staying stupid. Debate all you want in school, then get off your duff when you graduate and do something.

      Amen.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • jj

      Sorry HeavenSent, but I never quoted Jesus in my post. And judging by all your other replies, you read the Bible and then chose to ignore it. And, by your posts, you have apparently declared a Jihad on anyone that disagrees with you. Congratulations, keep it up and you could essentially become the American version of Bin Laden – oh, that's right, you'd need a lot of money for that. I guess you'll have to settle for the Bin Laden of bloggers destined to fade into insignificance.

      May 4, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • jj

      And, oh yeah... Amen

      May 4, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
  7. -T

    I had a friend die (he was a civilian contractor) at the Pentagon during 9/11. I watched his widow suffer for years from the horrible tragedy and still suffers from it (she has not remarried).

    So yeah, I celebrated when Bin Laden was killed. He was pure evil. He hides behind religion and uses women, young nen, and children as sacrificial lambs to do his bidding. This has nothing to do with muslims and everything to do with the killing of a very evil man.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:25 am |
  8. Chris

    IN the end if something ever happens in America again I expect to see other parts of the world celebrate and this will be on going...Who will step up and be the better people? As americans did we celebrate that we killed 1,0000,000 people in WW2...No we celebrated the end of an atrocity...

    May 4, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Chris, if you read the Bible, you'd learn that the USA is the super power of super powers.

      You have the right to remain stupid because our men and women in the military fight for your right to sit on the side of the pool, complain about the water, without ever jumping in.

      Amen.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:20 pm |
  9. Anais

    When Muslims in the Middle East were shown celebrating the more than 2,000 deaths on 9/11, people in America looked on them as bloodthirsty and inhuman. How does video of the celebrating Americans make us look to the rest of the world? As if we are no different than they were.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:24 am |
    • Chris

      2000+ innocent non-combatants to 1 guilty combatant. Only a person without reason or rational thought could equate the two, so yeah you're probably right, they probably do think we are no different.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Don't worry about your balls Chris. You obviously don't have any.

      Get a grip, moron. Our men and women in the military are fighting for you to stay stupid.

      Amen.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
  10. A different Bob

    Spot on! Within minutes of the reaction being shown on TV, I was texting my brother-in-law and expressing my discomfort with the celebration and saying how it reminded me of the unsettling images I had witnessed coming out of the Middle East following the 9/11 attacks (chants of "Death to America").

    For me it was a time of deep reflection. I'm glad that Osama is dead, but I am not celebrating it. Al Qaeda has already slipped to the margins of the world psyche and been replaced by the faces of young Muslims marching for freedom as opposed to hate. Now that makes me truly happy!

    May 4, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  11. Jake

    Americans celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden is completely incomparable to terrorists celebrating the attacks of September 11, 2001. On 9/11 the celebrated the death of thousands of INNOCENT CIVILIANS who were in no way deserving of the fate that fell upon them. On Sunday night, Americans celebrated the death of an enemy combatant, a murderer responsible for the death of those thousands of innocent people. It doesn't take an ethicist to see we're exponentially more justified than they are.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:24 am |
  12. BornUScitizen

    Wow...I wonder how Bush & his father feel about Osama's death, considering their personal friendship...I mean after all Bush did ignore the warnings through his memos of the 9/11 attack that he failed to warn the US citizens about...Hmm!!! I'm even contingent about Bush not knowing of Bin Laden's where about before his capture???? BTW!!! AMERICANS ARE STILL NOT OUT OF DANGER!!!!

    May 4, 2011 at 11:23 am |
    • Chris

      Do you also worry about how Clinton feels? After all, it was under his watch that 4 and 1/3 of the planning of 9/11 took place, and not to mention the multiple times he was given the chance to get OBL but declined.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • Chris

      That should have read 4 and 1/3 of the 5 years of planning.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:27 am |
    • Ryan in Michigan

      @ BornUSCitizen – Bush was the one who started this whole bloodhound trail back in 2007 by sending a CIA team to track the courier that led us to bin Ladin through testimonies by Guantanamo Bay detainees. We're sorry for your great loss (actually, I'm not – I'm glad bin Ladin's dead).

      May 4, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  13. Ryan

    What standards do we as a Americans have to live up to? Are they written somewhere in a book for everyone to read? America has always been different since day one. We have become sympathetic for the very people that cause hurt and lifelong suffering to families all across america. We watch in horror as Americans are beheaded on televison, Dragged through the streets, and dumped out on the streets with no diginity. We sit and watch on TV for the last ten years a war play out with seemingly the purpose of trying to find a single man. The media fuels the hate of millions by making every thing out to be this big deal. So when something like the killing of Osama Bin Laden happens the natural reaction is to rejoice because now millions of Americans now a little bit of closure. I say we are a free country and if celebrating the death of an evil man is what people want to do then so be it. Religion has nothing to do with it and should never have anything to do with it. America is great and will continue to be that way regardless of what other third world country approves of us or not.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:22 am |
  14. jj

    To the student who stated that it is only human 'to want revenge, to hate your enemy, and to throw your hands in the air in exultation...', I agree. But isn't part of our purpose here to overcome the basest part of our humanity. If someone like Bin Laden, in life as well as in death, can bring out the worst in us, then he truly has won. And, if we truly want to root out any future Bin Ladens, then partying on the square is not a good place to start. As far as justice for the victims of 9/11, won't we all suffer more if a reprisal matches the tragedy of the two towers. We could all be served by a good long reading of 'The Art of War'. We are never so civilized that evolution of the human spirit can't be ground to a halt.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:21 am |
    • BUTTLORD GT

      The notion of "purpose" is ridiculous. Your assumption that such a thing exists means that your entire argument is baseless. Celebrate death.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:26 am |
    • Joe in Pittsburgh

      "If your opponent is of choleric temperament, seek to irritate him." -Sun Tzu

      May 4, 2011 at 11:39 am |
    • jj

      I could say that, by 'purpose', I meant those not intent on grinding evolution to a halt. And I could say that 'violence only ensures more violence'. And I could say that myopic thinking is what led to the Husseins and Bin Ladens and (insert next radical). But I'd rather just point out that anyone who calls themselves Buttlord, I must agree, has no purpose... so my post would seem ridiculous. Sorry for the inconvenience, your lordship.

      May 4, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  15. Chris

    Liberals like the writer of this piece really need to look at the big picture and not an image that makes them cringe. Osama bin Laden was a guy who attacked us essentially because the Saudi Royal Family hurt his little feelings when they accepted American protection over his mujahdeen fighters in the early 1990s. In response to his feelings getting hurt he orchestrated 19 nut jobs to hijack planes and fly them into buildings so that we could watch on live television people deciding whether to burn alive in the building or jump 90+ stories to their fate. The writer wants to equate spontaneous celebration of some young people who never knew the freedoms we enjoyed before 9/11 to this guy? Give me a break and gain some perspective.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  16. Troe

    I will direct us all to read out Mark Twain:

    "I've never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure."

    May 4, 2011 at 11:20 am |
    • BP

      You are paraphrasing Clarence Darrow, not Mark Twain.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:31 am |
    • Joe in Pittsburgh

      Actually, the correct Twain quote is: "I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction."

      May 4, 2011 at 11:35 am |
    • Ryan in Michigan

      Actually, the quote is wrong again. Mark Twain wrote "I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter of my approval."

      May 4, 2011 at 11:48 am |
  17. NewsRaider

    Thank you for your opinion, Stephen Prothero. Now here is mine: Without being belligerent; if you don't understand the jubilation over this killing, hgo get a clue.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:19 am |
  18. Breezy

    Before I get jumped all over – hear me out. I am happy he was found and dealt with. This man has caused countless deaths across the world. The pain he caused right in my own country is beyond words and still hard to think about, even after 10 years. For the troops that are serving still and those who have died – your sacrifice was not in vain. Thank you, a million times over, for protecting me and my freedom. The part I am struggling with is exactly what this article is talking about – the news reports and coverage of American's partying in the streets. I was watching one reporter try to talk to a crowd in D.C. – asking what they thought this meant for the US and if any backlash was to be expected – the drunk idiot proceeded to whip off his shirt and shout USA USA USA – never answering her question. Then I see kids who cannot be more than 16/17 years old comment that they have been waiting for years for this (expletive) to be taken out. I just wish I could say I felt like this country took the high road on this one...Like I said – I am happy this country made the move to take him out – but this should not be the glamorous part of the war on terrorism. All in all it should be the bigger picture of peace and freedom we are excited about…not the solitary demise of a monster – even though I respect the fact that this needed to happen. If you ask me, I will tell you I am happy with the results of the raid – but you will not see me out using this as an occasion to whip off my shirt and crush a beer can against my head. The sense of RELIEF is more overpowering than any urge to celebrate at this point. Be patriotic – not idiotic.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • locdvegan

      very well put....

      May 4, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • Kris

      Your post was very thoughtful, very clear, and your sentiments most welcome. I hope many people read it, or that you make your thoughts known to a wider audience. I applaud your voice of sanity. Peace.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:37 am |
    • Choconet

      You seem to imply that our young people have no idea what they are celebrating and are just being foolish looking for any excuse to party. You even go so far as to dismiss the young people and teenagers whom you think were too young to remember. Think about what those kid's lives were like after 9/11. My daughter was 10 years old at the time and things changed in big ways for those kids. They felt it most in schools because of the way schools conducted emergency drills, children suddenly became limited in the words they use and how they play. Believe it or not our children were affected by the events of 9/11 in ways that you haven't even thought of. The way they viewed life with innocence and play changed that day! To imply that teenagers know nothing about Osama and his oppression and were not affected by 9/11 show that you have no idea how American children were also affected the day the twin towers came down. Sure teenagers and young people may not be able to express how they feel about this whole terror thing, but they know it’s an end to something that was taken from them a decade ago.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Breezy

      Unfortunately, you misunderstood my comments and read too far in between the lines. It was not implying that children do not remember or did not feel the impacts of 9/11. Of course they did! My comments were about the ridiculousness of the actions that were captured and broadcasted. Do not take one fragment of my comment and reduce it down. The bigger matter addressed was my opinion on the images of the events. And yes, I am an expert in my own opinions.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:19 pm |
  19. pat

    A religion scholar should not feel sad or uncomfortable celebrating anyone's death if he actually has studied the Bible.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:19 am |
    • Sean

      If you actually read the Bible, you would know that you are 100% wrong.

      "Say to them,(A) As I live, declares the Lord GOD,(B) I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live;(C) turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?"
      -Ezekial 33:11

      "“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
      -Matthew 5:43-48

      You probably need some brushing up.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:29 am |
    • Raga

      Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiick

      May 4, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  20. EricMatthews

    I also am a little put off by some of the celebrating I have seen. I personally feel relieved that OBL is gone, and am thankful for any lives saved by this action. I just cannot picture Jesus dancing in the streets over any person's death, because he loves us ALL. So more than anything else, I feel a type of sadness for the situation as a whole. God Blessed us all, with the wisdom and power to live in his image, yet many choose to live with judgment as their way of life. OBL judged us, and in return we judged him. Someday we'll all love each other as Jesus does, and things like this will be something you only read about in history books.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:18 am |
    • Jake

      “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword"
      -Jesus Christ

      He wouldn't be dancing, but He'd say bin Laden got just what was coming to him.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:29 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.