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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. Denice Bilbrey

    Grow up. He started this, he paid for it. He was nothing more than mass murder. God is the Judge and at times man has to
    hurry things along. He was Evil nothing more than a Hittler. He was Evil. Who would want to live beside him and disagree with hime. Thought as much. Nobody. We are at War after all. Pick a side: War is War and actually has guidelines and laws.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:07 am |
    • Alexandrea Tocco

      I would argue that he has grown up, and is a grown man, and is rather sharing his OPINION in this forum. Degrading a fellow american based on his feelings of humanity and the natural wonderment of death, and how to treat it in ANY form is natural, and does not show IMMATURITY, but rather the intelligence to share and argue a point that is on MILLIONS of minds...something that is shared by many.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:47 am |
    • Alexandrea Tocco

      sorry ***degrading a fellow american is harsh based on his feelings***

      May 4, 2011 at 12:51 am |
  2. Norm

    Typical liberal. So worried that his own personal party will end some day, he feels bad when someone else's does.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:06 am |
  3. Beth Fox

    I also was surprised at the unusual partying glee my fellow Americans showed at someone's death, despite who it was that died. I guess I would rather have seen more somber behavior, maybe remembering every U.S. citizen that bin Laden was responsible for killing over the years. However, I do understand the happy behavior. God bless the Navy SEALS.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:04 am |
    • Woodrow

      ..."despite who it was that died."

      Who it was that died is the whole and complete point.

      Ding-dong the dude is dead....c'mon, join in! A kid's book/movie celebrated the death of a witch. I have no problem with folks celebrating the death of a real-life monster.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:29 am |
    • Asdgasdgv

      No-one likes spam, no-one will bother vitsiing you if you try and scream your website down their face so don't do it. Simples.I hope these have helped you with your website! Feel free to comment below and give your own suggestions

      April 1, 2012 at 5:58 am |
  4. GunnyHighway

    I say go celebrate. All American citizens should be out there, celebrating the damned good work from your service members from the past decade. There are thousand of people who have given everything to ensure this happens. If it appears "morbid" or inflammatory to the rest of the world, well screw them. We don't need to stop being ourselves because the world doesn't like it, we're Americans. Should we expect the French to not act like French people if they were to do something gay and fruity? Of course not. They're French.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:02 am |
  5. chf

    This is one of the best articles posted on CNN

    May 4, 2011 at 12:00 am |
    • Brandon

      That's odd that you would say that this is the best article you've read on CNN. I have never disagreed with an article more.

      I've noticed the same thing on twitter and facebook. It seems evenly divided. One camp passionately defends their celebrations of OBL's death, and in the other camp those celebrations are enthusiastically condemned.

      This issue just underscores the growing disparity between competing ideologies in this country. The fact that an opinion such as the author's is so widely held, disturbs me much more than any foreign threat of terror.

      I am HAPPY that Osama bin Laden is dead. I refuse to apologize for that. What an absurd assertion!!! Americans should feel guilt and regret after hearing the news that our most hated enemy has been killed???

      If you can't ascertain who the bad guys are and who the good guys are after comparing the post 9-11 celebrations in the middle east and the post OBL death celebrations in America, you are morally lost. The moral equivolancy meme is literally nauseating.

      We should never as a country put the popularity of America ahead of the ability to distinguish between right and wrong.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:34 am |
  6. Nicole

    This is a ridiculous article. The people celebrating in the streets of the Muslim world were celebrating the death of thousands of innocent people. Osama is not innocent, if captured alive we would be celebrating his capture. Dead or alive America has some closure even though we will never forget.

    May 3, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
    • Well said

      You are 100% right. Sorry to tell you though, the other "self enlightened" people will not notice the important difference you just explained.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:47 am |
  7. 21441

    "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles"
    -Proverbs 24:17

    I like how most of the people in the comments who are celebrating Bin Laden's death in these CNN articles always seem to add in something about God in their comments. Maybe you guys should actually read your own book for a change.

    May 3, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
    • Well said

      I find it funny how people need to quote scriptures in order to prove their point. You fell into the same trap that you claim the others have. Have YOU read the bible your quoting from? Quoting from Proverbs, which were the writings of one man, leaves out all of the books that followed Proverbs that deals with death, destruction and harsh judgment. Don't follow the tradition of quoting the Bible to prove only your point. It's annoying.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:45 am |
  8. Gabe Stein

    Counterpoint, from students at your school: http://buquad.com/2011/05/02/why-we-rally/

    While I, too, was a bit unnerved and did not participate, I have to agree with the sentiments of the BU students who did. After all, these were their feelings, and although they may not have all lived in New York ten years ago, they do run deep: these students have lived with the scourge of terrorism, economic decline, etc. for most of their lives – and the boogeyman has always been Osama. Who are we to deny them these feelings? In the end, for the most part these rallies were about having something (justice) to celebrate at all, not about celebrating death.

    May 3, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
  9. Juan

    I am glad that Osama bin Laden has met with his demise. However, I cannot celebrate it because: 1) it took ten years, 2) I still have to take my shoes off at the airport. Nothing has changed. 3) it likely will result in retaliatory attacks and 4) as the most powerful nation on Earth, maybe we should set a better example than just an 'eye for an eye'. Ironically, isn't that the Muslim way?

    May 3, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
  10. doggod42

    Another interesting data set would been to have polled the class concerning their belief in invisible people and places (e.g. gods and heaven and hell) and seen if there was any correlation between those who held such beliefs and those who were doing the partying and exulting. I'd be willing to bet the correlation would have been high.

    The Islamists rejoicing at the pictures of 9/11 were such believers, so it makes sense that the the same beliefs would bring out similar tribalist behavior in those who call themselves "Christian". It is, come to think of it, a sort of microcosm of the way religions have inspired hatred and fomented violence throughout recorded history.

    May 3, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
    • Woodrow

      Yeah, and countries that are grounded in Atheism have been great!..well, if you don't count the Soviet Union...and China...and...most communist oppressive nations that committed mass-murder.

      Wait, you can't be self-righteous either!!!

      The world will always have monsters. Some of these monsters will pervert even the best of this world. We just killed one of the worst monsters the world has seen.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:25 am |
  11. NR

    "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars... Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." -MLK

    May 3, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
    • Norm

      I'm guessing that was before he was shot, right?

      May 4, 2011 at 12:04 am |
    • Woodrow

      @NR "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that."

      I think I heard one of our guys had a light mounted on his gun...it probably did help. Thanks for helping!

      May 4, 2011 at 12:17 am |
  12. Doug

    There is no afterlife live a good life while you are here and if someone does you, your family, or your country in a very nasty way take names and kick a$$.

    May 3, 2011 at 11:54 pm |
  13. Frank D. Hankins

    I also cringed as I saw the celebrations. As a follower of Jesus I do not believe that celebration, especially excessive and open celebration before a watching world, is the right response to Bin Laden's death. Somber reflection and closure are more in order especially for our citizens who lost so much on September 11. Thank you for your poignant and thoughtful reflection.

    May 3, 2011 at 11:52 pm |
    • Robert

      So will you also cringe and become somber when God destroys the devil? Come on.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:25 am |
  14. workforcookies

    After watching all the celebrations of Osama Bin Laden's death yesterday, I recalled the exact same image as the student in this essay mentioned—the one of people celebrating in the Muslim world after 9/11. I don't think the mystery of death is what bothered me when I saw my fellow American's celebrating in the streets, it was the fear that we have become too much like the enemy. I was living in NYC during 9/11 and remember it as a time of compassion. Everyone on the subway—on the streets in the taxi cabs—wished each other well. I think if we'd heard the news that Osama had been killed then, it would have been met with a more somber—and more appropriate— response.

    May 3, 2011 at 11:51 pm |
  15. Robin Bahr

    Paul Wolfowitz has been given a platform on CNN for his opinions on Libya and now on the assination of Osama bin Laden. Why? This man was one of the architects of the Iraq war. His assessments and predictions of that war have proved to be disastrously wrong. Yet he is not even questioned, much less challeged, about his role in promoting America's one and only preventative war. Where is your judgement? Is he considered an expert on internatinal affairs? How piossible?!!!!!?

    May 3, 2011 at 11:49 pm |
  16. Calan Kinnally

    Mr. Prothero, it sounds like you had something of a realisation about the mass public and the way our government runs. Yes, within each and every one of us is a wild animal that acts based off our emotion first then with our logic and reason second. One can only expect the general public to have an emotional response from an event that was shed in emotional light by the media. Is it right? Probably not, but why question it? You always know people will behave in such a way and to think that because the US is a developed country doesn't mean that all our people developed in suit.

    May 3, 2011 at 11:49 pm |
  17. de4728

    I have no problem with Americans celebrating the death of Bin Laden though I didn't participate in any of them. I personally am tired of people thinking you have to apologize for being an American. This man caused the deaths of over 3000 innocent people and would have killed 300,000 more if he had the chance. The 10 years it took is equivalent to sitting on death row but luckily there was no last minute pardon. The world is a better place today.

    May 3, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
  18. be avis

    now he can enjoy his 200 or so virgins for becoming a martyr. good luck with the Osama

    May 3, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
    • Allah

      He gets all the virgins he wants, thousands of them, but there is a catch: they stay virgins, and he has to spend the rest of eternity dealing with their "issues."

      May 4, 2011 at 12:25 am |
    • Bin Laden Bin Shot

      The cruel joke for Bin Laden – all of the virgins are guys.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:36 am |
  19. vasechek

    there is no real cause for celebration. we are still at war and there still is no end in sight.
    this was dirty work that needed to be done, like putting out the trash. do you celebrate putting out the trash? or execution of a serial killer? it won't bring back one life he destroyed. it's a shame it had to come to this. it would have been better if we never had to do it.
    let the fine folks in Gaza celebrate death. let us concentrate on giving them less to celebrate.

    May 3, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
    • GloSeattle

      Well said! Celebrating over someone's death leaves us no distinction between them and us and puts us no closer to finishing taking out the garbage 🙂

      May 3, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
  20. Jim

    Garbage article. CNN needs far better fodder than this to put up. How many American deaths is this guy responsible for? Maybe not directly but his leadership and beliefs have misguided many others to acts of atrocity. We should celebrate the removal of such a blight from the earth. Stephen i'll be sure to skip your next article. Hopefully it's better than this one.

    May 3, 2011 at 11:47 pm |
    • paul

      Further evidence that a college education isn't worth the paper its printed on. Only in the impractical fantasy world of a college campus are such things debated.

      May 3, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
    • Acaraho

      You don't get it.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:07 am |
    • JC

      Agree that Stephen is in the weeds on this one. OBL leaving the planet is worth celebrating!

      May 4, 2011 at 12:13 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.