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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. RP

    The war will continue and 1 man dead will not bring back the 7 friends I lost in Iraq in Feb. 07. The military will continue to fight and the american people will continue to have their own opinions and talk instead of ALL americans supporting those who were willing to pick up a weapon and fight. Celebrating should come at the end, but we might never see an end to this war. Instead of arguing about whether we should party or not is really not the issue. The question that should be asked is, WHO'S NEXT on the list.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • Jess Dee

      ^ I couldn't agree more. WHO IS NEXT?

      May 4, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  2. NODAT1

    I noticed that there has been a couple news stories with the author opposing the celebration of OBL death, the authors admitted that they have not lost anyone to the terror act that OBL admitted to doing. The author of this story has a lot to gain by opening opposing the celebration in the way of favors from the students and "free" interviews from pro terrorist groups but I wonder if he would really hold to his beliefs and be opposed to the celebration of the death of anyone who has killed one of his loved ones?

    I hope his beliefs are never tested in this manner

    May 4, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
  3. Reese

    Mr. Prothero you hit it right on the nailhead. The same thing went through my mind as well. Are we acting like those other countries who celebrate when an American is killed. We should not act like them. There's something wrong if we begin to act like them. I hated Bin Laden just as much as the next person but the point is we should not act like a bunch of fools like our enemy countries. Just not right. Are we beginning to be like them? It certainly looked like it. We shold be ashamed to stoop to their level.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  4. Jonathan

    There's a huge difference between partying over the deaths of several thousand innocent civilians and the death of a terrorist monster. I had the same initial reaction that you did, Mr. Prothero, but when I thought about it I came to the conclusion that ObL was not a "fellow" human being, he was an inhuman mass murderer.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
  5. Sean

    I agree, and I was pleased to see that many of my Facebook friends agree as well. I'm glad there are so many of us with reverence for all human life.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • QS

      I'm not surprised that there are as many of us as there are...what does surprise me is that those who disagree seem to think that those of us not joining in celebrating this death are not showing enough American-ness. As if to be considered an American in the first place we are all obligated to celebrate this death.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  6. american

    You damn right I'm going to celebrate the death of that monster! He destroyed the lives of thousands! Not only will I continue to celebrate his death but also the excellent work of our men and woman to see that this creature was brought to justice. To be honest, we should have beheaded him and broadcast on tv for all to see!

    May 4, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • QS

      Ya know, I'd really like to be able to tell people around the world that I'm an American and be able to say with pride...unfortunately people like you give me less and less reason to be proud of my country and its people.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  7. Lina

    IT IS A FREE COUNTRY, TO CELEBRATE AND TO WRITE THIS ARTICLE.

    DON'T JUDGE ME FOR CELEBRATING AND I WON't JUDGE FOR THIS ARTICLE,
    BY THE WAY I AM VERY LIBERAL AND I FELT MORE PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN THAN ANY OTHER TIME IN MY LIFE WHEN I HEARD HE WAS KILLED.

    TO EACH HIS OWN.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • QS

      "To each his own" – I'll try to remember you said that if we are ever attacked again and we see them celebrating in the streets.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
  8. stevenk

    I enjoyed Prothero's article. I thought about the celebrations critically the following day. The revelry made me uneasy. I believe that all the negatives the country has been through for the past 10 years, beyond the attacks, it was finally something to be happy about. It was a tangible feeling of accomplishment. However, some celebrations seemed less patriotic and more superficial. It reminded me of how I react to other celebrations at our nation's expense, like those who celebrated after the 9/11 attacks.

    The death of OBL is a just a victory in a larger conflict. The conflict still isn't over. The reports of this military operation were adamant about the respect for Islamic traditions in regards to OBL's burial. This says to me that America holds itself to higher standard than our enemies. If this is true, America should hold itself to similar standards and not replicate our enemies' celebratory reactions when the victory is at their expense.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • QS

      "some celebrations seemed less patriotic and more superficial."

      Personally I think they all were, but that's me. The only people who really should have any right to celebrate are those who actually lost people in the attacks...yet those are the people behaving the most dignified through all of this.

      Everybody else just seems to be wanting to jump on the "America is great again" bandwagon. To me that's what it looks like everybody is really celebrating, and I think it's disgusting.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • stevenk

      I agree with you, QS.

      I think we should take a page from the victims' survivors and honor that dignity. It's fine to be happy and show it, but a lot of what I saw made me embarrassed to be an American.

      May 4, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  9. Sharon

    I feel sorry for anyone who thinks that death is a "mystery." Only the religious think there's a mystery to it; the rest of us know that it's just the end of life. Happens to everyone.
    As for celebrating, why not? It's a celebration of patriotism, not death.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • QS

      There are far better ways to display patriotism.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  10. erich2112x

    Just how Jesus-like are we supposed to be?

    May 4, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  11. cavery

    "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction ... The chain reaction of evil–hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars - must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation." – MLK, "Strength to Love" 1963

    May 4, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • Jon

      You're right, darkness can't drive out darkness. But a good strong light can and I hope the last think that OBL saw was that red dot lazer light on his cornea just as the hammer fell.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • argie

      ok I have seen the MLK quote so many times, and appreciate it and its historical meaning etc, But MLK didnt fight Osama. I appreciate what MLK was fighting for but these are different times, and by the way, he wasnt perfect either. So please stop holding him up like a Saint.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  12. argie

    this author may be uncomfrtable withhis own death, fearful even, and lets that sway his feelings on facing death in the media. Not all of us are concerned about our death, and inevitable event that I feel ok with given my security in my beliefs. I think celebrations like this are a reaction to the undeniable relief a lot of us felt in knowing that one more source of evil, and hate and destruction is gone from this earth and why shouldnt we celebrate feeling releived? A lot of people have fought and died to bring this guy to justice one way or another, and this death is one way of doing that. People shouldnt be wracked with guilt over feeling so positive about this particular death.

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

      Argie, I appreiate your calm and throughful response, but as a counterpoint, I propose a scenario. Two boys are playing in the yard. A group of bullies comes up and intimidates the smaller of the two. The other boy that was playing with him, steps up and confronts the bullies. Subsequently, the bullies beat the boy up. As the bullies walk away, they are laughing and jeering the boys in the yard. What do you think the reaction of the smaller boy is? I think he would be plotting a means to destroy the bullies. In this scenario, the bullies are the US as viewed through many international eyes. The boy that stood up to them would be Osama (right or wrong aside, morals issues not relevant). The smaller boy is any organization or individual that sided with Osama. It is one thing to have the figure head removed, quite another to rub it in the faces of those that looked up to him. I believe relief and some acknowledgement is in order, but some of the reactions will only serve to undermine the accomplishment.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • argie

      I wouldnt say that the US is the bully in this scenario, we didnt fly planes into the symbol of properity in Osama's backyard.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  13. John

    Great what's next? You can't celebrate your team winning the superbowl cause it may hurt the feelings of the losing team's fans?

    May 4, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  14. awaysaway

    I really can't let this go... There is a “Death and Immortality” course at Boston University? I am just grinning and shaking my head...

    May 4, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  15. Fors@k3n

    Are you kidding? We are having a PARTY this weekend, and the guest of DIS-honor? A photo of Osama for everyone to urinate on and throw their pig fat onto!

    May 4, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  16. tcifelli

    What a loser...

    May 4, 2011 at 12:23 pm |
  17. Mixy

    WOW all great comments. You have mentioned Bin Laden, even Adolf Hitler-but what about the slavemasters (and their decendents) that have continued throughout american history and the racial tension that's still alive & well here in america.
    Blacks have been around forever and has never celebrated the death of any white american leader as of yet...and that's because they are still around and keeping the country divided. I other words, what's the difference between 911 & the anti black and so called minority racial discriminations. Are we any better than Bin Laden or Adolf Hitler ?

    May 4, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
  18. Robert

    Our people were celebrating the death of a man who had attacked them, had killed thousands of civilians and had promised more. They were celebrating the murder of civilians. There is a big difference.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • Reese

      Oh so that's why other countries celebrate the death of an American. I always wondered why they cheered so loudly. Prehaps we did them wrong. Hmmmm something to think about

      May 4, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • QS

      I guess that's the impasse that most are at in this discussion – "we were celebrating the death of...", "they were celebrating the death of..." – this is the point we're trying to get across...celebrating death, regardless of the justification, is still celebrating death. There is no difference.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
  19. Josh from Jersey

    Thank you, Mr. Prothero, for so eloquently putting words to how I have been feeling since Sunday night. The partying in the streets made me very uneasy, for death should never be celebrated, but rather should be a somber time for reflection. There is something inherently wrong with a society that reacts similarly to winning a sporting event and a man getting shot in the head, however despised the man may be.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • awaysaway

      It was totally spontaneous and heart-felt and wide-spread. I would say that it was inherently human to celebrate this situation.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • QS

      It is not inherently human to rejoice in death. It is however inherently human to justify bad behavior due to an overwhelming surge of emotion.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
  20. Aaron

    " Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; or the Lord will see it and be displeased, and turn his anger away from him."

    Proverbs 24:17-18

    May 4, 2011 at 12:22 pm |
    • awaysaway

      Well that settles it then. A quote from the Bible... You do know that religion is at the root of this violence? But its ok because your crazy religion is not his crazy religion?

      May 4, 2011 at 12:29 pm |
    • Jason

      Think about our soldiers overseas. What is best for them? Is it best that we create images of Americans celebrating Bin Laden's death? Or is it best that we reflect quietly, think, and let the soldiers continue to do their job(s)? I believe that we are making things worse for our soldiers by celebrating. I think there are plenty of other ways for patriotic Americans to show their support for our soldiers.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • Reese

      I agree

      May 4, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • QS

      Unfortunately, due to the overly competetive nature of our culture, this is merely Americans doing what they do best...gloating and making a$$es of themselves. The reason it seems to many of us that these "celebrations" appear to be more like post-game rallies is because that is the culture we've created...a culture of "winning is everything" and of considering humility to be a weakness.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
    • Jessie S.

      Kudos awaysaway. Spot on.

      May 5, 2011 at 3:24 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.