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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. Michael

    I understand your objection to revelry over the death of a human being, no matter how odious, but I must respectfully disagree with your interpretation of the reasons behind the celebrations. I cannot speak for all of the participants, but I do not think they are rejoicing over the death of Osama bin Laden the human, but rather the death of what he represented – the notion that a terrorist can commit horrific acts of violence, destruction, and murder, and get away with it. How many would-be terrorists will reconsider joining al Queda now that Osama bin Laden – the face of that organization – has been tracked down and killed? Somehow I think al Queda and all other terrorist organizations will now have a much harder time recruiting new members. Consider how many innocent people, as a result of this dearth of new terrorist recruits, will be spared from being maimed or killed by nefarious acts of terrorism. That is indeed cause for celebration.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  2. David

    We are celebrating the removal of a mad mass murderer from our world. Do you not understand why we have all the restrictions when we travel? This lunatic disrupted our way of life, made people suffer and morn the loss of a love one or family member, worry about his next taped message to the world and just cringe everytime there is some type of disaster that he may be linked to – he celebrated in our fear and suffering – we celebrate one less thing to worry us or make us not do something that has been normal for us to do for most of our life. He did not care about how many women and children he murdered or how many children do not have parents to help them grow – we needed this. Most days we only get one bad happening after another. Get a real life people – remember those who got vaporized on 9/11 – and their families had nothing to bury. He is dead and we have one less crazy person in this world who can affect us.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  3. Ryan Hayes

    I am a liberal democrat, and hardly ever hawkish about war. But Osama bin Laden was not a fellow human being. He was a monster and a mass killer. His death saved lives, and people were celebrating the release from the fear that this cruel murderer inflicted the world over. Entirely appropriate.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
  4. Mark Bradley

    The folks in the middle region seem to have no issue burning our flag, beheading our people, putting fatwas on people who dont agree and partying up and down the streets dragging our military corpses around for all to see and beat on. I have ABSOLUTELY no issue with us in America showing this emotion of relief and joy at the death of this HORRIBLE man.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  5. Rich

    You say we were celebrating his death. So you're then saying the streets would have been quiet and empty if he had surrendered quietly and was captured alive? I don't think so. We were properly celebrating justice being served to our sworn enemy.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  6. Albro

    For those who 'cringe' I offer the following question: How would Osama bin Laden have handled the situation? Would he have shown humanitarian restraint? Would he have troubled himself over a proper and respectful burial? This man left the world HIS WAY! Why profess such angst and hand-wringing over treating him the way he claimed enemies SHOULD be treated? He was an enemy to any civilized culture. He choswe his way, and his end.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  7. JamesGA

    We were celebrating closure and justice!!! If you have a problem with this, then please leave the US right now.

    Americans celebrated the end of WWII. Millions died in that war, yet people celebrated its end, the relief of closure, and the fact that the US was still intact. Do you have a problem with that? Then please, leave the US RIGHT NOW.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • QS

      Don't kid yourself – the people celebrating in the streets were celebrating a win for America, not justice and not closure. This was Americans doing what Americans do best...gloating!

      May 4, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
    • Michael

      Yes, I agree. What if things had happened differently? What if instead of being killed in a shootout with US forces, word had spread throughout the world that Osama bin Laden had died of natural causes? Would there be celebrations in the street rejoicing his death if that had happened? No. That is because we are not celebrating the fact that he is dead; we are celebrating the fact that an indelible blow has been delivered to the cause of terrorism, making the world a safer place, which will end up preventing a lot of senseless fear and suffering and saving countless lives.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  8. Steve

    They kill us, they dance in the streets.
    We kill them, we dance in the streets.
    Why can't we be the ones to rise above this caveman behavior?

    May 4, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  9. awaysaway

    There is a “Death and Immortality” course at Boston University? Is this affiliated with the "Disappearing up my own A$s" course? Sir, you have way too much time on your hands.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  10. boyamidumb

    By the way – if you really think they killed the most amazing source of information they will ever find, and then dumped his body in the ocean – I am going to have the tooth fairy visit you. He will die – but only when they have everything out of him they can get. How do you think that makes the people who funded everything and the guys in the field feel about their future. Killed him................lmao.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:06 pm |
  11. joe mc

    I will never celebrate the death of another, no matter who they are... good or evil. I *DO* take satisfaction that justice was served but I will *NOT* dance in the streets when someone dies or is killed. Doesn't anyone remember how much it hurt when we saw Middle Eastern crowds dancing in the streets when the towers fell? I don't know about you, but I'd prefer not to sink to that level.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  12. Taren

    Give me a break man. We haven't had a clear cut victory and we've been at war for a decade. You say that us celebrating his death won't help our global image.
    But the truth is America will always be the voice and defense for those who are persecuted.
    Yet there will ALWAYS be those who hate us for everything we are and everything we have. To think that anything we do will change our global image to not be the evil empire everyone portays us as is daft. The people who hate us will always hate us. So I say let's do our own thing. Which in this instance to me means. CELEBRATE AMERICA. Because no matter what we do there will still always be our enemies out there who hate us. But this is a victory for us and we should celebrate it as a victory and not hide our jubilation.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  13. libcircus

    Get over yourself, Stephen, or better yet, get over your politically-correct hyperbole. The death of this cretin from the islamic underbelly should not only be celebrated with full revelry, but should also be a national holiday, much the same as April 30, 1945 should have been with the death of Hitler. UBL was the scourge of the modern world, a scourge that has been, hopefully, disposed of permanently and appropriately...

    May 4, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
  14. JamesGA

    Please, immigrate immediately to the UK.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  15. sanjosemike

    It's important and cathartic to celebrate bin Laden's death. There is no afterlife. There is no god. Bin Laden stole a great deal from us, not just innocence, but also thousands of our own people. Bin Laden also murdered thousands of Muslims, actually far more of them than us unbelievers. I celebrate his death with enthusiasm and make no apologies for it.

    I'm tired of religious people lecturing me on what I should or should not do. They don't have that right.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
  16. Kheeb Mashhen

    They will hate whether we celebrate or not. I seriously doubt celebration will have a negligible impact on national security. For most, it was victory that was celebrated.
    "...mindless (and often vulgar) slogans were not in American national security interests. There are lots of people around the world who hate America."

    May 4, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • sanjosemike

      And if those people who hate us come after us, we will go after them and get them. That's the lesson here.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  17. why do we bother

    Why does every thought generated by the human race need to be put up for public discussion? P.S. I thought there was a ban on dumping garbage in the ocean?

    May 4, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • rafael

      Because we are human. Thinking and communicating are our two big deals.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:15 pm |
  18. boyamidumb

    There is something unsettling about celebrating death – even of someone as evil as this thing. But I believe it diminishes the victims of his evil and diminishes the cause and the people who celebrate good conquering evil. If anyone was paying attention many of the families of the people in the Towers were not celebrating, in fact they were still calling for justice and a day of reckoning for those inflated egos who's personal enrichment was more important than doing the jobs they were elected to do – protect and defend. I'll celebrate when we have leaders willing to enforce, but also willing to provide real leadership.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:02 pm |
    • sanjosemike

      That's only your opinion. Not mine. I celebrate bin Laden's death with relief and pleasure. I hope he suffered. There is no god or gods. What he took from us cannot be replaced. I drink to his death! Religious people have no right to lecture me on what or what I should not do. I pay my taxes and am a good citizen. I have that right.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  19. SadieSadie

    I am a conservative Christian and I too felt a but uneasy about the celebrations that were going on. I remember exactly were I was on 9/11 and don't think I will ever forget. I have mourned the loss of family and friends in the fight against terrorism so even though it is a relief that he is dead and can't harm another person, I just felt like reflecting in the cost of finding him.
    I praise the amazing military men and women who have fought and continue to for our freedom.
    I also think about the two little innocent children that watched their family fall apart. They did nothing to deserve that and America seems to have disregarded them.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • sonny chapman

      "It is the business we chose to get into"-Hyman Roth, Godfather II

      May 4, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • mike

      The kids are in Pakistani custody. The Pakistani government will see to it that they are treated well and have everything they need for years, same way they took care of the father.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • James

      Disregarded them how? What did you expect to happen, that the Navy Seals would adopt them as loveable mascots? What they saw was tragic, but unavoidable because of their father's actions, not because of the actions of the US. The Pakistani government is responsible for their well being from here on out. What is truly appalling is that Bin Ladin would choose to have children with the situation he chose to put himself in. That is a true crime against humanity to add to his no thankfully longer running total.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
  20. Think harder

    Anyone who classifies those 'celebrations' as celebrations of someone's death is not being intellectually honest. We were attacked on Sept 11th and the mastermind was UBL. He was number 1 on FBIs most wanted list. He was not just anyone and people weren't just celebrating death, but the elimination of the most major operative in the war on terror.It was a catharsis for those who lost love ones and fellow citizens to terror- we eliminated a banner that the terrorists recruited under and accomplished a major objective in the war on terrorism that was close to 10 years in the making. Just as VE day wasn't the celebration of killing people, but national pride in an accomplished objective, so too was this the way people wished to express pride in their government and sympathy for the 9/11 victims. So yes, it actually would be 'morbid' I this were a celebration
    of a random killing, but there is much much more to it and if the author of the article had not lived under a rock for the past ten years, even he would have to admit
    It was long overdue.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • boyamidumb

      Yep, it brought back every one of the innocent dead. Made their families whole again and brought all of our troops home where they belong. Gee. You are really quite a smart guy.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Think harder

      Like I said, we brought a mass murderer/terrorist to justice. Compliments to the armed forces is appropriate. That was one of the major, tangible, objectives in the war on terror. Unlike you, my heart wasn't bleeding when I heard the news, and I slept like a baby.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
    • James

      boyamidumb, way to pick an apt name, as you implied that Think Harder was saying things that they clearly did not say. Can you actually read, or just like to get your exercise by jumping – to idiotic conclusions?

      May 4, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
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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.