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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. Aaron

    I don't know why people are having such a hard time with this. Let me illustrate a simple example. We typically call intolerance bad. Racial intolerance,we say, will not be tolerated... whoops... but aren't we now guilty of being intolerant of the views of the racially intolerant? If we are intolerant of racial intolerance, does our act of intolerance lower us to the same moral level as those who are racially intolerant? No!

    Likewise, you can kill the killers who are guilty of killing the innocent without losing the moral high ground which allows you to condemn the act of killing innocent people. Killing those who are guilty of killing the innocent is not unlike being intolerant of racial intolerance. The mistake is insisting that all killing, without exception, is wrong. Because it isn't.

    Bin Laden killed at least 3,000 innocent people. He forfeited his right to be treated with dignity and respect, even in death. I will not give him even that. We might all be born equal, but reverence, I say, is something you must earn.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:14 am |
  2. brad

    I felt the same way watching the celebrations. It wasn't that I was not glad to see a mass murderer get what he deserved, I felt more like saying "good riddance" than "lets party." Your female student from NY hit the nail on the head, I grew up on Long Island and go to school in New York City. Most of the students doing the "partying" were from areas like Vermont, Missouri, or Texas, etc. While I'm not saying this was true in all cases this typically seemed to be the case. I can not think of one kid I knew from NY who went outside to celebrate and get drunk, but I knew plenty who went to ground zero to pray for there dead loved ones. His death made me reflect on those who were lost on 9/11 not celebrate.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:11 am |
  3. Chuck

    I particularly do not jump, shout or drink over the death of anyone. I do however feel we had some justice served. I am not content yet as Pakistan owes more than an explanation. But because I do not rejoice openly, my 17.5 years of military service thinks it's ok if somebody else does. Are we becoming 'One of them' you ask? Well we have not yet decapitated bodies, mutilated and urinated on the remains. We have a few more steps to go before we get even close. Watch a couple of Be-headings on youtube. You'll see a difference between us and them. We have a conscience, they don't.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:10 am |
  4. truethinker

    We aren't celebrating that he is dead so much, except those that lost people to him, but the fact that he will never hurt anyone else.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:04 am |
  5. ZOUNDSMAN

    Some former humans have left the planet (serial killers, etc.). They are no longer part of the brotherhood of man.
    Their position can mean only mean more profoundly negative actions and death. I won't miss Bin.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:02 am |
  6. Hope

    When I saw Palestinians who partied upon hearing about the two towers and people who got killed in that inferno I felt a very sour taste in my mouth. I had the same feeling when I saw my fellow countrymen drunk and spilling profanity in the stupor of celebrating Bin Laden's death. We have managed to stoop down to the same level of those Palestinians we saw on screen that day ten years ago.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:58 am |
    • Bill

      Well said, Hope. Most people on here are too narrow-minded to understand why it makes us no better than the Palestinians on 9/11, and that's a shame.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:12 am |
    • Woodrow

      So, in your mind:

      The celebrations that followed thousands of innocents getting killed on Sept 11th

      - is no different than -

      The response we have had to the person responsible for those deaths finally being shot 10 years later

      They cheered the death of thousands of men, women, and children doing nothing more than going to work, daycare, or flying across the country. We cheered the fact that the guy that killed them all was finally killed after 10 years. HOW ARE THOSE EVEN CLOSE TO THE SAME? Please tell me you're not a teacher too...

      May 4, 2011 at 2:35 am |
  7. matt

    Words cannot explain how sick and tired I am of this crap. It is perfectly normal and quite expected for people to celebrate the death of their biggest enemy. People should celebrate and parades should be thrown for every returning American servicemember. I say this because I am a servicemember and remember how badly I hated all of you because we all lost our seats to civilians in Baltimore while returning home from Iraq (even though we were there first). I think that all this shows is that liberalism and going around feeling sorry for everyone is not as big as people want to say it is. I think the average American is just a normal person. Neither liberal nor conservative but just regular everyday people. I'm happpy that he's dead as this has saved untold lives. Maybe instead of mourning the death of an evil person we should mourn the deaths of the thousands of innocents he killed or that Planned Parenthood will kill this year. Spare the wicked, condemn the innocent, is that what we live by now? Oh and it's not the same as sinking to their level. they celebrated the deaths of non combatants and innocent people. We celebrated the death of a legitimate military target and a man that had this coming as he definitely earned it. Great job to the SEALs and great job to our government for actually acting like an American government should.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:57 am |
    • Bill

      Planned Parenthood has never killed a human being. Also, just because it may be in YOUR human nature to celebrate the death of our enemies doesn't make it right. Maybe I'm a little more sentimental, but as relieved as I was Sunday to hear Obama say the words 'Bin Laden is dead', I couldn't muster up the will to celebrate it. Thinking about all the brave and innocent men and women who gave up their lives over the last eighteen years to get us to today caused me far more sorrow than Bin Laden's death brought me joy.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:07 am |
    • Bin Laden Bin Shot

      @Bill

      Planned Parenthood conducted 332,278 abortions in 2009 according to their own statistics. Just figured I'd pull your head outa your backside for a moment since that was a dumb comment.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:43 am |
  8. Brandon

    I have never disagreed with an article more.

    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 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 1:51 am |
    • Bill

      I've read a few articles similar to the author's point of view, and every time I read posts like Brandon's written by people who don't seem to get being glad Osama is dead is different from celebrating it. What I saw in DC and NYC on Sunday night is no different than what we saw in the streets of some middle eastern countries on 9/11. You want to be able to celebrate the death of our enemies? Fine, but in doing so, realize that in some respects you are no different than our enemies and iyou give up the right to be outraged when the enemies celebrate the death of Americans without being a hypocrite.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:04 am |
    • Brandon

      Bill, explain to me this great moral divide between being happy that Osama is dead and celebrating it?

      From my point of view the only difference is taking into account of what our already stated enemies think about us. WHO CARES WHAT THEY THINK. We're in the right and they are in the wrong.

      So, let me get this straight.... If I celebrate the death of Osama I forfeit my right to be angry if the radicals in the middle east celebrate a successful terrorist attack? Are you insane?

      It doesn't make me a hypocrite to evaluate the difference between good and evil and choose to ally myself with good. It's ok, you can say it. Embrace it in fact. Radical Islam is evil and we are not!

      May 4, 2011 at 2:17 am |
  9. Dave in FL

    Is this guy for real? Hand-wringing over the assasination of a terrorist mastermind? Perhaps we should have simply found a good shrink for Adolf and all would be forgiven. Perhaps Stalin should have been given a stern lecture. Sheesh.

    And he probably believes that planting a tree will "save the planet." (The Planet doesn't care).

    Obviously someone's been living in a sheltered little university fantasy world waaay too long, if not, I'd bet, all his life. I'd suggest he get out into the real world. Amazing what a little experience outside will do for those too-cerebral ideals.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:50 am |
  10. UDjamieA

    Let's learn and move forward fellow humans. Humans should not have to worry about death from other humans. That is inhumane. Life is too precious. Our species may not have the longest time on this planet. Let's all enjoy it.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:48 am |
  11. stormsun

    It's nice that Americans are free to reflect and feel a kind of vicarious guilt at the death of an avowed enemy of our country who was personally responsible for thousands of American deaths. You have that freedom because other Americans are willing to risk and sometimes lose their lives doing the unpleasant, morally repulsive things that are necessary to perpetuate your freedom. Personally, I think a lot of folks just enjoy feeling morally superior. We'll see how you feel about such niceties if and when the really bad guys bring horror and death to the streets of this country. Maybe you will be too busy then to worry quite as much about the pristine condition of your conscience.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:47 am |
    • gdebra3

      Well said.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:25 am |
  12. mike

    bin laden is best known for the attack on 9 11 but people seem to have forgotten about other terrorist attacks he claimed responsibility for world wide. this monster has finally been laid to rest dont knock people in a moment of euphoria that took to the streets to celebrate his demise. As long as he lived his mission would have been death to innocent people. Well done USA good riddance to a peice of excrement.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:43 am |
  13. just so u know

    "Bin Laden Bin Shot

    I'm glad that you monitored all of the network and cable broadcasts post Sept 11th to ensure, along with the keeper of all complete and truthful reporting, Dan Rather (why did he get fired by CBS again?), that all celebrations were from stock footage. I'm sure they were all in mourning...

    Question – are the people with Osama posters marching in the streets burning the USA flag now from stock footage too? I'd just like to know no. I don't learn that it was just a misunderstanding 10 years from now."
    just so u know

    boy are u a bitter...and a maybe a bit of a extremist yourself...did i say that in the past 10 years Muslims haven't celebrated....ofcourse there are those who have just as much hatred for America as u probably have for them...but the footage on 9/11 that was shown was stock footage...and since ppl often use that as an example i am telling u that in that particular case it is not true...
    and besides we here in America have ppl who do the same thing..ie Terry jones who burnt the Qur'an...do we then say all Christians are bigots?? or that every American hates over 1/4 of the worlds people??

    May 4, 2011 at 1:43 am |
    • Bin Laden Bin Shot

      Ooo – a dufus. I don't know how you come up with them. Zing! And posting the same thing twice on the forum too. Clever.

      "...but the footage on 9/11 that was shown was stock footage..."

      What footage? All footage? A specific, single sequence? A frame? A single shot of a person? All networks? Just CNN? Your local TV station? When was the footage actually taken, and for what event? What country? Was it spliced with other current footage? How many minutes did the sequence run?

      Not exactly sure what your point in trying to explain away the celebrations that followed 9/11.

      As for how I feel about all Muslims – glad you could enlighten me regarding my feelings. You can't type a full and complete sentence, and can't frame an argument, so you just resort to insults. So..........you hate Jews, gays.... and you kick little puppies! Prove me wrong.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:27 am |
  14. John

    It reminded me of an end-zone celebration. Unnecessary and classless. I'm glad he's gone but I didn't go out celebrating. I was wrapping my head around what the surviving families of Sept 11th were going thru.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:40 am |
    • alanjay1

      My thoughts exactly. I'm sure many people who lost loved ones felt some measure of justice, but I highly doubt that justice filled even a fraction of the loss they still feel.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:45 am |
  15. Steve

    "Have we become like them?" the arrogance is stunning. as if america has some sort of moral superiority. Where the heck have you been? Let's stop pretending we're better than anyone else (because we are) and just celebrate the death of our enemies.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:37 am |
  16. tjlewis

    i believe obama knew exactley where he was, but waited to get him around his election year!!!

    May 4, 2011 at 1:36 am |
    • Dj

      FYI...This isn't his election year.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:49 am |
    • Brian

      No, they waited until after the Royal wedding to do it or finally release the information so it would give him a better boost coming into the election year. They said that the intelligence they had(what ever that is) that they had had it for a few months now.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:22 am |
  17. Retired Navy

    I don't remember Stephen Prothero writing anything about our dead military men being drug through the streets of Mogadishu. I don't remember him writing an article about the muslims celebrating the attack on the USS Cole, the Khobar Towers or any of the other deaths of US service members. I guess only Americans get "schooled" for celebrating the death of one of the greatest evil persons since Hilter. If you and fifty percent of your class is upset by watching people celebrating the death of evil, well then, just like TV programing you don't like... Don't watch.
    "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." Ok, so you are another mindless idiots who cares what people around the world think. I don't. They can all kiss my #@@. Those that hate us don't hate us more, they simply still just hate us and sitting politely going "sorry we kill Bin Laden" isn't going to make them like us any more.
    If you want to "reflect" go ahead, but tell me, what are you reflecting about?
    "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." That's really profound of you. But I wonder if your female student cries and reflects when a fetus is aborted. Oh wait, that's not a death of a human being. That's just expelling unwanted tissue from the body. You might want to celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden by celebrating all the people who will now be alive five, ten, fifteen years from now because he is dead and gone now and unable to hurt anyone else.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:36 am |
    • alanjay1

      Doing whatever crosses your mind and not caring what anybody thinks about it is the mark of a child, not an adult. Do you teach your children to brag when they win a baseball game? To spit on their hands before shaking the hands of the other team?

      May 4, 2011 at 1:52 am |
    • Brandon

      @alanjay1

      If the opposing little league baseball team declares war on your country and kills thousands of your fellow countrymen I think they forfeit their right to be treated with good sportsmanship.

      You're right though, it's definitely a teachable moment.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:04 am |
  18. Juan H

    We celebrated the death of a man who cause 9/11. A man who keep Americans on guard, and paranoid of another terrorist attack. People celebrated the end of that mental grasp he still had on us. And if people in some dirt poor country in the middle east want to hate us for it, so be it!

    May 4, 2011 at 1:33 am |
  19. craig

    It's so sad that a person who started as a cute baby made so many choices to be and do evil. I'm thankful he's been taken out, but I wouldn't celebrate the end of a tragedy.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:28 am |
    • Ted M

      I agree with you quite a bit, but would you have preferred the tragedy to continue? I mean really.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:40 am |
    • alanjay1

      That's not at all what he said. There is a difference between "not celebrating" and "regretting"

      May 4, 2011 at 1:42 am |
    • craig

      Ted, I agree with you that I wouldn't want the tragedy to continue. As I said, I'm thankful he was taken out.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:01 am |
    • Bazoing

      Some babies are not cute; he had a long black beard.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:05 am |
    • Ted M

      I look at it as the end of a human being who was beyond help while at the same time doing quite a bit to harm others. So it is better that his life be ended than for it to continue without hope of correction for his sake as well as the sake of everyone else in the world. No one is safe from a violently insane person of wealth. That we support dictators who kill as viciously as OBL ever did just means that our internal ethics need to be addressed at some point.
      If the unethical factors in our government align to do a good thing that helps the world, then that is the exception that shows us some hope that true government reform is not impossible, just very unlikely at the current time.
      Sorry to hijack your point with my long post, but any claim to ethical superiority should always be questioned and examined. We are not showing the world anything but that we can occasionally do something that makes more sense than the usual bits of unethical conduct.
      I am glad OBL is dead. His essential humanity is not lost on me even as I pump my arm and say "yessss!". If we had captured him his insanity would never have been healed even if we had tried to heal him.
      We cannot fix mental illness. We can only try to treat it as best we can. If you want to imprison him for decades instead of giving him a quick death, then where is your ethical stand concerning death versus imprisonment and all the unusual and cruel things we, as members of the body-politic, would intentionally inflict on any prisoner subject to our every violent and oppressive expression of collective vengeance?
      I mean really. If you can't see the difference between right and wrong and only get yours out of a book, then I suggest you avoid breaking the law in this country regardless of your religious views, seeing how they might not pass an ethics inquiry in regards to whether your religion also tells you that your god is above any laws to where you become enthralled into criminal behavior.
      But I was just trying to make a point, anyway. I did say that I agreed with you quite a bit, did I not? This is an attempt at clarification. This universe and our brains are not simplistic in effect. Real-life situations are always multi-faceted. This is a messy one with world-wide complications. I hate the necessity, but I also enjoy the end of what threatens the group I identify with. It would have been better had he never became insane, but what can you do when you are programmed into a cult as soon as you can speak?
      Child abuse is what caused Osama Bin Laden to be a sick murderer. Child abuse in the form of his psychotic religion that only makes sense to the people within it.
      Religion is a madness on the face of the world. Any end of madness is to be desired whether it comes by death or some other means.

      May 4, 2011 at 3:05 am |
    • Ted M

      I should add that any organic cause of his mental illness would also need to be taken into account. If we can't fix it, maybe we'd better shoot it, so to speak. But that sounds pretty callous doesn't it? But what other options do we have? Sometimes they live and sometimes they don't. But I digress.

      May 4, 2011 at 3:19 am |
  20. tallulah13

    I think that celebrating the death of a villain is a very human reaction.The name Osama bin Laden has been the monster under the bed of America for 10 years, The monster is dead, America can breathe a sigh of relief and be happy. Perhaps it's in poor taste, but it's an honest reaction.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:28 am |
    • CF

      The monster is not dead, he simply resides in us now. Our bloodlust and pride is slowly turning us into the same people that paraded our fallen soldiers down the streets during the 'Blackhawk Down' incident.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:39 am |
    • Woodrow

      @CF

      You're a 20 year old philosophy student, aren't you. Deep thoughts. "He simply resides within us now." Wow. Definitely community college undergrad or maybe an online college.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:45 am |
    • Oluwatobi

      The monster under the bed is Al-Queda, and Al Queda is not dead. As much as it seems like justice has been served, i feel as if America has just woken up a sleeping giant so we should be weary and cautious for the next couple of months. Osama had supporters and I bet they are less than thrilled by all what's happened....

      May 4, 2011 at 2:07 am |
    • tallulah13

      Don't worry, CF. No dead bodies are being desecrated here.

      If you don't want to celebrate, don't celebrate. I'm not. However, if one of my family members had been killed on 9/11, or in the subsequent military actions in the middle east, or if I'd spent the last 10 years afraid that every shadow was a terrorist, I'd be dancing with joy at this news. It's a terribly human reaction.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:08 am |
    • Kevin

      We're questioning whether or not we should be celebrating bin Laden's death? Seriously? We really need to stop being such pansies. Bin Laden was Hitler, he was Stalin, he was every serial killer in American history combined, and he was plotting to kill lots more. We should be dancing in the streets that he's dead - and that we have an all-volunteer force of non-pansies who made it happen. Thousands of whom have given their lives in the process.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:11 am |
    • tcd113

      Well if anyone can recall the photo of the soldier kissing his girlfriend in the streets after returning from the victory of World War II, there was plenty to celebrate about. The United States had been involved in that conflict for not nearly as long as Bin Laden has been with us now. To relinquish someone that caused so much devastation, it is only natural to react they way we did. I would paste the photo but the url link is too long.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:23 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.