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. angelika

    Good thoughts, good article – goes in the right direction. I find the celebrations about this death disgusting!!! Osama might have been behind the attacks on the WTC, but there was no trial for him. The USA went into islamic Countries a few times killing thousands of innocent people including children. Where is really the difference. Who is worst then the other?

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

    I stopped reading when you called Osama a "fellow humanbean". He does not deserve to be put in a class with us, sorry. I'm still celebrating!

    May 4, 2011 at 6:00 am |
  3. Anum

    Muslims celebrating 9/11 makes me cringe. I'm a Muslim and there is no way I can be happy for a day that caused so much pain. Anyone who did celebrate 9/11 is void of humanity

    May 4, 2011 at 5:48 am |
  4. John

    There are some crucial differences between the celebrations in Washington and elsewhere of the death of Osama bin Laden and the celebrations in the Islamic world of the 9/11 attacks. The people in America celebrated an attack on a person, the people in the Islamic world celebrated an attack on a people. The people in America celebrated what they thought might be an end to violence. The people in the Islamic world celebrated what they thought would be its beginning, and hoped for more of it.

    May 4, 2011 at 5:43 am |
  5. NameCk*

    Wow people like this person who wrote this knows nothing. Of course we cheered we lost people and family members because of this guy. Seems to me your a lil non American.......

    May 4, 2011 at 5:38 am |
  6. BJNJ

    Do you cringe when you pop a zit. Osama was an infected pimple on the anus of society. He was "popped". Make everyone happy. BJNJ

    May 4, 2011 at 5:37 am |
  7. polly

    You are a hypocrite. Some religion scholar. Don't you celebrate Jesus' death? And dont thousands of other religions celebrate the death of a figure or God? Cmon now.

    May 4, 2011 at 5:36 am |
  8. IrmaR

    Yes, Osama Bin Laden was a monster – a killer. He killed so many innocent people. However, to rejoice for taking another’s life is puzzling to me. I know something had to be done with this monster and death was probably the only way to deal with it. I just find it very unsettling to see people dancing and celebrating. It was a horrific necessity but acting like it’s time to party for what our country had to do is no cause for a celebration.

    May 4, 2011 at 5:32 am |
  9. Christy25

    I am a conservative, but seeing the celebrations made me more than cringe – it made me really upset. I just don't understand what there is to celebrate! The war isn't over. Terrorism hasn't been finished. His death doesn't change anything in the plans of his followers. It upsets me to see this celebrating because I think it will lead to more loss of American lives! Both for our soldiers and civilians.

    Frankly, his death is VERY relieving to me, and I don't think it was a wrong move for the US government or Obama. Again, I am a conservative, but I am not above admitting when Obama does something right, and this was absolutely the right call. I really appreciate the dignity they gave Osama's remains in giving him the sea burial.

    Why? Because they are thinking about the consequences of their actions. Just because getting rid of him was the best thing to do doesn't mean that there aren't consequences. At least by giving him a dignified burial they may hope not to make more Muslims upset that weren't upset already. People are saying that the other side never shows us any dignity, but why should that matter? Why should we sink to their level and treat them the way they would treat us. Let us treat them well, treat them with the dignity we hope they could treat us with.

    My biggest qualm with the celebrating is that I feel this will incite so much fury in the hearts of those who hate us, even more than the act of killing him did. It's called adding insult to injury. So not only is there nothing of real value to celebrate, but there is no good that can come of celebrating like this.

    Hats off to Obama and the way he, the CIA and the military handled this.

    May 4, 2011 at 5:25 am |
    • Mannyg2

      Your post expresses judicial dignification for both sides of this issue. I'm sure we are all relieved in the death of OBL, but for there to be any "real" celebration/satisfaction will come when terrorism is resolved through both military and diplomatic solutions, and we the people have the ability to see to it that this type of devestation on lives, will never have the opportunity to rear its ugly head (on a global scale) ever again.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:05 am |
  10. Jay

    I couldn't agree more. The images of the celebrations in major cities were eerily reminiscent of the celebrating in the streets in the Middle East after 9/11.

    I'm not particularly religious, but I do call myself Christian. I think it's safe to say that the majority of U.S. citizens would also call themselves Christians and that many American values are closely aligned with those of Christianity. One of these values is the value of human life, i.e.: "Thou shalt not kill." In general, I would like to think that most Americans would agree that killing someone is wrong and goes against fundamental American values.

    Also, I think most Americans would agree that it is hypocritical for a person to claim to love this country while blatantly ignoring a fundamental American value. For example, an individual claiming to love and enjoy freedom, but then oppress others due to the color of their skin, ethnicity, etc is clearly a hypocrite. So isn't a person who enjoys the values and freedoms of our county while also celebrating the fact that a man has been killed also a hypocrite? I think so.

    May 4, 2011 at 5:20 am |
    • Ted M

      More than your "do not kill" is the need to defend our country and protect our citizens. That we are able to project our force to kill key instigators of mass murder means that we don't have to sit back and wait to be killed. We can go stop the ones who are bent on mass murder of innocents right where they live instead of hoping they'll be handed to us on a plate.
      And killing is done every day by Christians in this country, individually and as agents of our government, so your "do not kill" isn't really as indicative of any majority opinion since we all want to live together without having a mass murderer around. Or don't you like to know how people can be stopped once and for all from mass murder? Death stops their bodies and brains from killing innocent people. You are just being unrealistic and unreasonable by attempting to adhere to an unworkable position.

      May 4, 2011 at 5:30 am |
  11. Will 18E

    And when GWB flew on the aircraft carrier with the Mission Accomplished Sign where was your sanctimonious self-indulgent arrogant, and above it all criticism then? where was it?

    May 4, 2011 at 5:12 am |
  12. rick

    There is an enormous difference between muslim celebrations at the mass murder of Americans, and Americans celebrating the killing of the beast who perpetratred the atrocity. There are now radical groups who are holding prayer vigils for bin laden and Hamas condemned the killing of Bin Laden, as did Venezuela. That is akin to mourning the death of Hitler or Pol Pot. I see nothing wrong in celebrating the death of this monster and a victory in our fight against islamic militants. 295 of my colleagues are still up there in the north tower.

    May 4, 2011 at 5:09 am |
    • Ted M

      Still in the north tower? How?
      In particles still embedded into the concrete remains of the Twin Towers?
      Is that what you mean?

      May 4, 2011 at 5:20 am |
  13. ukio

    My first reaction honest reaction upon hearing the news was great joy. When i was writing in facebook that i was celebrating the death of bin laden, it did seem strange that the death of someone would be cause of joy. But i believe someone as evil as bin laden must have lost his humanity long ago. And that the scenes of celebration might enflame the extremists of the muslim world does not bother me because we can't live in constant fear.

    May 4, 2011 at 5:08 am |
  14. Ben

    I think it is quite complex the reasons others celebrate the death of an enemy. In this case, people just needed an emotional outlet which I think is natural. But i believe different degrees of somber reflections follow after the celebrations. The celebrations and the reflections lie on a continnum, it is not black and white in either case. But nice post

    May 4, 2011 at 5:02 am |
  15. Russell Freeman

    I am sorry I heard a quote today In the news there was a story of a man pushing a woman in front of a bus and another story of a man pushing a woman out of the path of a car and all the liberal read was two stories of men pushing woman around. Please note they cheered the death of 3000 people we cheered the death of the man who killed them
    sorry for a smart elitist you sure are stupid.

    May 4, 2011 at 5:02 am |
    • Ted M

      -Russell Freeman- Are you seriously trying to defend misogyny? So you're a wife-beater and you want people to vote Republican where so many of you sick a**holes hang out? Seriously? Gawd!

      May 4, 2011 at 5:14 am |
  16. ysc

    Haven't read all the comments, but I'm thinking never mind whether it's appropriate to celebrate OBL's death....has anyone asked whether it's okay to laugh and joke about what happened? I watched bits of Letterman, Leno, Kimmel, Ferguson, and Fallon on their late night shows this past Monday night....and they ALL made jokes about OBL's death! And all their audiences roared with approving laughter! But no one seems to question whether THAT'S "inappropriate" or "morbid". Is it?

    May 4, 2011 at 5:02 am |
    • Mannyg2

      I would think not in that, no one takes Letterman, Leno, Kimmel, Ferguson, and Fallon.... Seriously!

      May 4, 2011 at 7:13 am |
  17. Fedupandbeyond

    I too cringed at the premature celebration. We should only be celebrating and taking time off from our daily routine when the entire region that preaches death to the western world is a sheet of glass. When did the United States of America become such a group of weak kneed wussies!? We need to buck up and do what needs to be done which is destroy our enemies that would do us harm!

    May 4, 2011 at 5:01 am |
  18. John

    Your cringing makes me cringe.

    This man was a psychopathic killer without dignity. He didn't attack our soldier, he attacked our people as they went to work. He killed thousands of innocents. Destroyed the dreams of all their families. All to accomplish some ambiguous agenda that will never be.

    Were we truly at his level, we'd lay waste to all of Pakistan. And if people like him prevail over there, maybe someday that too will happen.

    Don't cringe, explain instead why we should allow men like him to live, when so many die at his direction? Why do you accept the notion that murder per se is wrong? Like our need to be intolerant of intolerance, murdering murderers is not a difficult concept to wrap one's heads around.

    I read he was unarmed, so what?! We weren't there to arrest him. We were there to shoot him in the head. I'm glad we did. So glad in fact, I will celebrate without shame.

    One more thing. To those who mourn the murder of Bin Laden, or call him a hero, you should stand and confront us in a unified manner so that we may properly go to war with each other. That is a war we will quickly join – and celebrate when we have finished.

    May 4, 2011 at 4:58 am |
    • Ben

      I agree on some of your points. Murdering murders might not be necessarily wrong, but celebrating their murder might not be the right response though.

      May 4, 2011 at 5:06 am |
    • Guy Beckley

      Well said John,

      "I've never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure" – Mark Twain

      May 4, 2011 at 5:23 am |
    • fierybuddha

      Not celebrating a death is far different than mourning or calling anyone a hero. Those of us NOT in a celebratory mood probably are deeper thinkers looking forward to a world where humanity can settle our differences WITHOUT murder, violence, or revenge.

      So please, judge yourself for thinking death and violence is any long-term solution, but don't judge those of us that would prefer it be different. We are the peace keepers, my friend.

      May 4, 2011 at 5:40 am |
  19. Teresa

    The only reasons Americans should be celebrate is when the fighting & death is done on both sides. Not just over one man! The poison he preached is still going strong amongst his followers and that is our greatest enemy.

    May 4, 2011 at 4:51 am |
  20. zenarcher

    Likewise, I am uncomfortable with some of the things I've seen and heard at these victory celebrations. And, I reflect on how we celebrated when OBL and the Taliban were killing Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, not so many years ago. And, I wonder if these celebrants felt nearly as much emotion for the many innocent people who have been "accidentally" killed by us in our attempt to "end terrorism." I feel much the same discomfort as when I see celebrations outside prison walls when a death penalty order is executed. I would celebrate much more if we ever reached the day when we could all share this planet and resolve our differences without death as the only resolution to our differences.

    May 4, 2011 at 4:44 am |
    • Alex in Bremerton, WA

      When the Muslims celebrated after 9/11 they were rejoicing in the deaths of innocents. We rejoice that the man guilty of killing innocents found justice. There is a difference.

      May 4, 2011 at 5:23 am |
    • Rose

      "Zenarcher", I totally agree with your comment. A story were some are very very bad people (Muslims) and others are angels (Western citizens) have been successfully created and marketed. But these stories are for kids, because in reality nothing is black and white, but gray. The confrontation fed during 10 years is exploiting now and, being "Alex in Bremerton" an example, the seat of hate is already planted. A big confusion regarding Muslims, terrorists and Arabs exists, but I would like to clarify quickly a couple of points:
      1. Muslims who celebrated the dead of 9/11 victims are not Muslims
      2. Likewise, terrorists who kill innocent victims are neither Muslims (even though if they call themselves so)
      3. It is quite unrealistic believe that a man alone could plan such a terrorist attack. Who did it then? This is something we will never know as, after such unfortunate and illegal action, this man will never have his legal trial and as the chance to listen the other side of the story..

      May 4, 2011 at 5:47 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.