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. paul

    Bin Laden was the founder and leader of a death cult bent on our destruction. He got what he deserved. He lived as a coward and died as a coward.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • david

      It's not a time to celebrate when someone who is not born again dies.

      May 2, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  2. Seth

    At first I was exited to hear he was dead, but then I felt creepy celebrating the death of anybody. Even thinking "I'm glad he's dead." feels wrong. Not taking Osama alive is a missed opportunity to show the world what real American justice is about.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
  3. IceT

    Evolution has, over millions of years, honed the human moral code of conduct to naturally embrace that which protects human life. Happiness at the demise of a killing beast is natural & healthy.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  4. DanH

    Stop comparing the celebration of Obama's death to the celebrations that occurred on 9/11. Americans are celebrating the end of someone directly responsible for the deaths of thousands. The celebrations on 9/11 were in response to the deaths of thousands of innocent people. Argue the morality of these celebrations all you want but don't compare them because they are not the same.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  5. Ty

    "When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices, And when the wicked perish, there is joyful shouting." ~Proverbs 11:10

    May 2, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  6. GetReal

    Let's face it – we're humans, not saints, so I say CHEER! If you want a moment of silence, take it for all the American and British troops who risked and lost their lives.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
  7. pajocoaz

    Proverbs 11:10 When it goeth well with the righteous, the city rejoiceth:4 and when the wicked perish,2 [there is] shouting

    from 'ranan' (7442); properly, a creaking (or shrill sound), i.e. shout (of joy or grief):–cry, gladness, joy, proclamation, rejoicing, shouting, sing(-ing), triumph.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
  8. Derrick

    the guy did some horrible things. Possibly comparable and very similar to that of what Hitler did. We have all the right in the world to cheer that he's dead. America isn't the only country cheering.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
  9. Peter F

    Celebrating death? How is that morally right? As a Christian, I will celebrate when good triumphs over evil, when God's will is done, but that is totally different from celebrating someone's death...

    It's like your team wins the Super Bowl – but instead of jumping around and celebrating your victory, you stand and point fingers at the loser laughing at how they were defeated.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
  10. morallyoktocelebratedeathofevil

    I remember watching his people, including small children, burning the American Flag and rejoicing after the towers collapsed. So, I am ok with us waving the American Flag and being proud of our troops for doing what they needed to do to protect us! I think we should have the right to celebrate this victory before we have to start all over with whoever is next in line.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  11. Jim P.

    Pslam 137 says it all:

    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
    9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.

    Only modern religionsists think their stone age gods have lost the taste for blood.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  12. Christopher

    He killed our people by the THOUSANDS and in a method that was most disgusting. We killed a dozen or so, and in a way that reduced collateral damage. We have the moral high ground, and its okay to celebrate. Simple as that. We killed evil today. Stop giving breath to our ENEMIES by thinking they have a right to an opinion of these matters.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • Jeff

      We do NOT have the "moral high ground". Morality is extremely subjective. If you got upset looking at pics of people dancing in the streets when 9/11 happened, that doesn't make it OK for you to do the same thing. While I agree that killing him was probably the only way to stop him, that doesn't make it right to celebrate.

      May 2, 2011 at 7:17 pm |
  13. artemisia

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

    Why do "people of faith" so often think they are the only ones with moral values? I am an atheist. I am a secular humanist. I am a human being. I found the unbridled glee at least as disturbing as any "person of faith". I understand that this blog is about religion, but still.

    When i heard that Osama bin Laden was killed, my first reaction was sadness. Not sadness at his death, but sadness for his life and all the despair and destruction it fostered. Osama bin Laden could have done great things; he could have left this earth in better shape than he found it. He chose the opposite. A person of great wealth, his pious devotion to a supreme being should have led him to build schools and hospitals, to buy textbooks instead of Kalishnakovs, x ray machines instead of explosive devices. He could have led Afghanistan from an antiquated and fractured tribal system to a 21st century Garden of Eden. He chose instead to support the torture and murder of women for attending school. He chose to support torturing people for the crime of dancing at weddings. He chose to sow cruelty and death, where he could have nourished compassion and life. I don't believe bin Laden will see a heaven or a hell. But I do know he left this world poorer than he found it. And whatever closure his death provides is tarnished with the legacy of hatred left in its wake.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • Casey

      That was a really thoughtful and well written post thanks for that.

      May 2, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  14. Evan

    We should not cheer because this man died.

    1) We shouldn't cheer when someone close to you dies. Why should we cheer when this man does? You may reply "Because he was really evil"? How do you measure "really evil", and in what units? This is the fallacy of false precision. Truthfully, we are all evil, but that does not mean we should not love each other.

    2) The Bible says "Love your enemies", and there's no exceptions to that. Does that mean we should like what he did? By no means. But, to quote Gandhi, don't you think we should "love the person but hate the sin"? He was a human being, just like we are.

    3) We should be sad that they had to kill this man in the first place.

    To answer the question: yes, to celebrate bin Laden's death is morally wrong.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:45 pm |
    • Bob

      If we are evil than how is it morally wrong to cheer?

      May 2, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  15. Sarah

    For me it doesn't have to do with religious, although I am a religious person. As a moral human being, I can't celebrate his death, but only the fact that he is unable to continue the many horrible acts he committed while alive. That we can celebrate, but to say such brutish crude things about him is stooping down to his and the terrorists level.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  16. wondering

    I wonder what the difference is between those we hate when we watch them celebrate killing us and what they thinkl when they watch us celebrate killing them. Especially when both think they are on the right and have been wronged by the other. It really does not matter which is right or wrong...it simply feeds the fire we both claim to wish were not.
    So, all I can say is this ends nothing but a life and continues the impulse to continue taking more...but then, we are good at that...it is in our nature and that is just what we are...neither good nor bad...just who we are and what we do.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  17. Erika Sudz

    ‎"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." Martin Luther King, Jr.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  18. Chickie

    I'm really quite torn on this. On 9/11 we saw terrorist supporters cheering in the streets over the deaths of thousands- thousands of innocents. Last night and this morning, I witnessed Americans cheering the death of one, but that one was a mass murderer. Both are quite different- yet, I couldn't help but feel that both were wrong. No one close to me died on 9/11... in fact, I was quite lucky that those who were close to me managed to get out or not be there that day... so that too might skew my perspective. Justice was definitely served, but I just don't know if I can celebrate death. All I can hope now is that there will be no horrific retribution.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • Mark from Middle River

      "All I can hope now is that there will be no horrific retribution."

      Its a circle and it will continue. The shores of tripoli to the death of Bin Laden... and allthe back and forths. Until this planet gets sucked into a blackhole, it will contiinue.

      May 2, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
  19. LTH

    You quote a woman who ran away from her country in its hour of need. A coward who felt safer away from America. And she should tell anyone how to act? She should have stayed where ever it was she ran.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  20. Kensi

    This very issue came up this morning at work and I was livid that people were equating "celebrating" the successful operation against UBL with Muslims who praise and celebrate the indiscriminate slaughter of thousands of innocent men, women, and children. They are not moral equivalents. This nation is at war, and has been for 10 long years! There's nothing wrong with expressing joy when the world has been rid of evil.

    May 2, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
    • Jeff

      The world hasn't "been rid of evil". When you heard the news, we were still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Al Qaeda is still together. While we were successful in bringing some sort of closure to the people who lost folks on 9/11, that's about all it accomplished. There are still people/groups out there that want our country to fall, and they aren't going to go away just because the face of the Jihad is dead.

      May 2, 2011 at 6:58 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.