Is it morally right to celebrate bin Laden's death?
Thousands celebrated at Times Square in New York City early Monday after Osama bin Laden's death was announced.
May 2nd, 2011
04:11 PM ET

Is it morally right to celebrate bin Laden's death?

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - Festive crowds gathered to cheer his assassination.

One newspaper headline eulogy read, “Rot in Hell.” Televised chants echoed:
“U.S.A.! U.S.A!”

Americans spilled into the streets for spontaneous celebrations after news spread that Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, had been assassinated.

Yet another reaction took place in more sober moments as people of faith watched the giddy celebrations with a tangled mix of emotions.

Is it morally wrong to celebrate the assassination of bin Laden in such a festive, patriotic way?

That’s the question that troubled Danielle Tumminio, an Episcopal priest, who fought back tears as she digested the news that bin Laden had been killed.

Tumminio was in New York on September 11, 2001. Her Long Island neighborhood, filled with lawyers, stockbrokers and firefighters, lost scores of people in the attacks.

“I remember coming home and smelling the smoke, seeing the debris and going to the funerals,” Tumminio says. “I actually studied abroad because I wanted to get away from feeling unsafe.”

But when Tumminio saw images of Americans celebrating, she felt something else: moral ambivalence.

Osama bin Laden's death: How should we feel?

“My first reaction was, ‘I wish I was with them,’” Tumminio says. “My second reaction was, ‘This is disgusting. We shouldn’t be celebrating the death of anybody.’ It felt gross.”

Jubilance, exaltation, revulsion - all those emotions mingled as people of faith struggled to find an appropriate response to bin Laden’s death.

No one we interviewed for this story denied the importance of bin Laden’s death; the heroism of the American soldiers; the importance of serving justice.

But religious leaders of different faiths say no one should rejoice in the death of a person, even a hated enemy.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld says that when people hear about the downfall of an enemy, rabbis often remind them of a verse from Proverbs: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles.”

Herzfeld - who is the rabbi of Ohev Sholom, The National Synagogue, the oldest and largest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, D.C. - says that according to the Talmud, “God does not rejoice with the fall of the wicked.”

“As the rabbinic teaching goes, as the children of Israel were crossing the sea and the army of Pharaoh was drowning, God rebuked the angels for showing excessive joy,” Herzfeld says.

Emad El-Din Shahin, a professor of religion at the University of Notre Dame, says the Quran also teaches reverence for every life, even the most repugnant ones.

He says Islam stresses that the death of a person should be observed in a respectful and solemn way for all people, not just Muslims.

He told a story from Islam to illustrate his point.

The Prophet Mohammad was sitting by a road one day when a funeral procession came by. The prophet stood up out of respect, says Shahin.

“The people with him told him, ‘But he’s not a Muslim.’

“The Prophet Mohammad said, ‘Isn’t it a human soul?’”

Shahin says most Muslims reject the notion that bin Laden was a Muslim leader.

“Bin Laden did not represent Islam or Muslims,” Shahin says. “He was an aberration. Most of the teachings and practices of al Qaeda were condemned by the majority of Muslim scholars and populations.”

One Christian leader pointed to a biblical story from the life of Jesus. Scott Appleby, a history professor who studies the roots of religious violence at Notre Dame, said that when Jesus was surrounded by guards near the end of his life, one of his disciples picked up a sword.

Jesus rebuked the disciple, saying, “Those who live by the sword die by the sword.”

“Certainly Osama bin Laden, who lived by the sword, received the world’s form of justice,” says Appleby. “But do we really think that violence, even a ‘justified’ act of violence, has the capacity to heal the wounds inflicted by violence - or to end the cycle of violence?”

Some leaders say that dancing on bin Laden’s grave is wrong from an ethical point of view as well.

“Killing someone should never be a cause for celebration or joy,” says Rick Halperin, past chairman of the board of directors of Amnesty International USA.

“We as a nation are repulsed when we see Muslims dancing over the death of
Americans. Why would we think our reaction would not be seen as disgusting behavior to them?”

The best reaction would be “somber reflection,” says Halperin, who is also director of Southern Methodist University’s Embrey Human Rights Program.

Tumminio, the Episcopal priest, has already arrived at that place. She says she plans to preach a sermon about the appropriate reaction to bin Laden’s death. She’s still sorting through what she will say.

“I think people have a right to celebrate. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with holding up American flags. But I don’t think we should celebrate the taking of life.”

There’s at least one sentiment she feels no ambivalence about.

Bin Laden’s death should give the United States something else its citizens have craved since September 11, 2001.

“I think this is going to be unifying for us,” she says. “Very few things have been unifying for us in the past 10 years.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: 9/11 • Christianity • Death • Islam • Judaism • Muslim • New York • Osama bin Laden

soundoff (1,195 Responses)
  1. Brynn W

    To all of those who feel like yesterday’s news is worthy of fist-punching, dancing in the streets & “AMERICA F-YAH!” reactions...

    I hope you take time to reflect that yesterday marked not a celebratory occasion, but rather a somber day in our nation’s history. We should hope and pray that it affords some sort of closure to the hundreds of thousands of victims, and families of victims (both in the US and abroad), who suffered & lost because of that sick human being, and we should hope that it provides symbolic closure for the rest of us who watched on in horror back on September 11.

    However, the US should also use this day to reflect and learn from our own mishandlings— how our anger and revenge all too swiftly took our eye off this prize that has taken us 10 years to win. Choosing to invade countries and declare wars in vain– in ways that one country shouldn’t do without the prior approval & support of the rest of the world– has been an all too common mistake in our nation’s foreign policy.

    It’s been disheartening to witness anti-Islamic sentiment rear its ugly head again in the past 24 hours, and even more disheartening to see so many people think that we're any safer, or any closer to world peace. In the words of Oscar Wilde: “When liberty comes with hands dabbled in blood, it is hard to shake hands with her.”

    May 2, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
    • cassandra

      Well put. Thank you for taking the time to compose this thoughtful summary. I appreciate it very, very much.

      May 2, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
    • I_Concur

      I Concur! Thank you!

      May 2, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
    • Justthefacts

      I fully agree

      May 2, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
    • LoganWon

      You are wrong, The US did in Ireaq whar the rest of the Arab world is just starting to do, get rid of the tryants!

      May 2, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • Ruhlmann

      The death of one fanatic can never bring closure to something like 9/11. There are too many witnesses to it and there are too many ready to fill his shoes. Islamic fundamentalism is a festering boil on the body of humanity and wether we want to face it or not it will have to be lanced. Bin Laden is a good start but now we have to go after Ayman al-Zawahiri and all the others we know will come after them.
      I didn't rejoice of his death, I didn't cheer and gloat but I did have a sense of gladness and I understand enough psychology to know why I felt this without shame or discomfiture. I am human and comfortable with my emotions and wonder of others expectations of my responses.
      I have a cat that I have had for eight years that wandered into my workshop as a hungry and dirty, flea infested kitten and I felt resposible for when I didn't even like cats. As well I had a chicken I rescued from a ditch that was the only survivor of a crate that had fallen from a truck on the way to slaughter. When everyone around me told me the best thing to do was to wring it's neck I couldn't do it. I took her to a vet and had her broken pelvis repaired and kept her for ten years before she went. You know she met me at the gate everyday when I came home from work. It isn't in me to harm a living thing and I am a morally responsible and caring human male but I would not have flinched at putting a bullet into Bin Laden. This man earned and truthfullu welcomed the world's hatred. He chose his own violent death.

      May 2, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
  2. sleepytime

    I'm happy to see an article like published, but it's a shame that it seems to imply that only "people of faith" might have mixed emotions about this.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
    • squealy


      May 2, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
  3. Bjamil

    OBL actions were not the result of hatred it was the result of retaliation at what we were doing in the Muslim world. He is nothing like Hitler. So stop it. Each of you read the paper every day and look at the number of deaths in our name and with our weapons Irsaels committs. OBL knew were Israel support and weapons came from.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
    • squealy

      Excellent point

      May 2, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
  4. Tim

    Too bad the bad guys wern't using old Wolfie, the original America hater, or Anderson Cooper for shields....maybe Nancy Grace can track down the "killer"....lol

    May 2, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  5. Tim

    It is fabulolus to cheer...celebrate....and kick anyone's ass who says otherwiese..... but those who hate this country will say otherwise....I say, kiss ass

    May 2, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • squealy

      Why is it always all or nothing? You do not have to "hate this country" to have conflicted feelings over this, for crying out loud. Some people just think a little deeper than that.

      May 2, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
  6. cranberry

    I understand what the religionists say, and certainly it can be a dangerous thing to rejoice in someone's death. But we know that we only have such warnings because it is instinctive and just plain common sense to celebrate when evil is killed. When Voldemort finally goes down this simmer in the last Harry Potter movie, the audience will cheer–and I daresay that will include a couple of rabbis and Episcopal priests.

    An enemy is one thing. Evil is someone who purposely causes the death of thousands of innocent others and who in fact then celebrates their deaths and considers himself morally superior for bringing it about. No, this is a death to be celebrated. Without shame.

    Where our regret should be is in having to do it; in having these weird fundamentalist beliefs encouraged around the world, and yes, within our country, fundamentalism of all types, that seeks to hurt others in the name of morality.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
    • Truth Prevails

      AMEN to cranberry thousands of million times.

      May 2, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
  7. 13Directors

    Ding dong the wicked witch is dead, Period! So yay!

    May 2, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
  8. Fenian1

    Read up on how Muslim enemies have been treated after death. That being said, I couldn't care less about the muslim extremist worlds feelings on the matter. What goes around, Osama. Rot in the dark.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
  9. Bill

    i celebrate and revel in his death. he was a waste of space.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
  10. Brian

    It is reasonable to assume that OBL was still actively engaged in plotting terrorist operations, rather than having retired a life of croquet on the lawn. His creativity and his charismatic leadership made him threat. It may be crass somehow to "celebrate his death" but it is understandable to celebrate his removal from the chess board.

    The good guys scored a point. It's OK to cheer.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:18 pm |
  11. Kevin

    I disagree with the author's use of the term "assassination". This was a firefight that erupted as a result of bin Laden's declaration of fatwa and war on United States, in response to his killing of thousands here and abroad. 3,000 innocent lives in one day. I am relieved that we eliminated this enemy even as he plotted and promised additional attacks on America. Am I jubilant over the loss of his mortal life so that thousands more may not die at his hands? You bet I am. I believe my Lord will understand my reasoning.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
  12. Anna

    Thank you for this article. It was well written and presents a debate that we need to consider.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
  13. Lisa

    It is hard today not to remember the image of that hideous woman doing that tongue-flicking cry, celebrating in some Muslim country as the towers fell and not want to celebrate a little at the death of bin Laden. That being said, I know I should not celebrate another person waking up at the beginning of his eternal stint in hell, especially when he thought he would deserve to be going the other way.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:16 pm |
    • MarthaC

      Well said, and agree!

      May 2, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
  14. ironfalls

    "We as a nation are repulsed when we see Muslims dancing over the death of
    Americans. Why would we think our reaction would not be seen as disgusting behavior to them?"

    "The best reaction would be “somber reflection,” says Halperin, who is also director of Southern Methodist University’s Embrey Human Rights Program."

    May 2, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
    • cassandra

      Yes–exactly my sentiments. Thank you!

      May 2, 2011 at 8:31 pm |
  15. I_Concur

    I am so glad you have posted this article because I was having a hard time explaining to my friends the reason I did not want to "celebrate" hi death. It brings a sense of peace to know he no longer is going to dictate or organize killing sprees, but I do not feel it's proper to celebrate his death.


    May 2, 2011 at 8:12 pm |
  16. Truth

    This is a huge step in the battle against senseless killing of innocent people. There is reason to celebrate.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:11 pm |
    • Allen

      I am an American. A patriot. I do not think this is a reason to celebrate. No, I think we are better than that. We can mourn our lost and honor our soldiers, but to celebrate the death of our enemy makes us small. Stoic reflection would be the more noble road to travel. America should be noble.

      May 2, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  17. Holly in San Diego

    "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." – MLKJr

    May 2, 2011 at 8:10 pm |
    • ironfalls

      love that quote.

      May 2, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
  18. Adelina

    We rejoice not because someone died(especially without repentance) but because justice was done and that particular person can no longer conduct further evil on earth. Therefore it is morally right. A foretaste of Revelation 19:1-5.

    May 2, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
  19. John Lane


    May 2, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
  20. John

    is is morally right to not celebrate the death of such an evil leader???

    May 2, 2011 at 8:07 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.