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. RDW

    Well keep cringing!

    May 4, 2011 at 7:39 am |
  2. tam

    why dont you guys watch the videos of people jumping out the windows of the twin towers and ask yourself again...why not celebrate the demise of this coward?

    May 4, 2011 at 7:37 am |
  3. Kate

    I was in full agreement until I read one key phrase 'like them' what is that supposed to mean and where does this allegedly intelligent man with a full vocabulary think that is an appropriate phrase to use. If this is about the oneness of humanity then why is he using such a phrase. Does it make us like the minority of radical people in the middle east who celebrated in the after math of the horrible events of 9-11 perhaps – but if that is the case say so and don't lump everyone together (including peaceful Muslims who love the USA). Poor choice of words sir.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:35 am |
  4. Tyler

    You had a student claim it was human to want revenge and to hate another and that is simply not true. Let us take Jesus or even Buddha who are supposed to be the perfect example of what a "True" human is supposed to be like and you see my meaning. It is the way of the world and the insane mind controlled by the ego that desires revenge or perverts love into hate. We are all here to do what we are all here to do and to judge another or any event as bad would be tantamount to calling God flawed since he creates and allows everything. If you feel queasy then you still have a conscience and this is a good thing and should be exemplified in your inner definitions of what is good and right.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:35 am |
  5. shawn

    how bizzare...I heard the same story on NPR with other students feeling appalled and confused. Look I'm not saying everyone needed to celebrate but to be appalled, embarrassed or angry that others are is simply not understanding emotions very well.

    As much as I hate to bring up the "H" word I'm quite sure everyone would have felt the same about Hitler even knowing his atrocities were far more reaching. Yes Obama was erroneous when he said justice had been served but we all know Hitler was guilty of crimes against humanity as was Usama...

    The USA got it's revenge and celebration is not awkward...a battle was one, a page was turned...and those who lived through the fear of 9/11 needed to breath again even if for a day.

    It's not that hard to figure out my friends.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:33 am |
  6. MichaelOne

    Don't forget the females... LOL.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:31 am |
  7. MichaelOne

    He deserved to die in the most ignominious manner possible. The fact that our Seals spared him that speaks to American decency,

    May 4, 2011 at 7:25 am |
    • Reality

      Bin Laden followed the dictates of the koran. His execution for crimes against humanity has not changed the koran. Until this book of terror is modernized or deleted all together, no male Muslim can be trusted.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:29 am |
    • James Woods

      @Reality You are just as radical as those you think you hate. Islam is against the killing of innocent people and suicide. If you hate something so much, you should probably spend the time studying it to understand your own hate and where it is rooted in. It is definitely not a Chrisitan belief that Islam is bad. Love one another. Treat others how you want to be treated.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:42 am |
  8. Bill

    So when people celebrated after Hitler's death that was wrong?

    May 4, 2011 at 7:23 am |
    • James Woods


      May 4, 2011 at 7:37 am |
    • usmc josh

      No because a man who dragged his whole country into war and killed millions of jews is evil. Theres no matter of point of view. He was evil and deserved to be punished for his crimes against humanity. If one death can save millions than it is worth it.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:42 am |
  9. Mark

    To value his life more than those he killed and hurt, or more than our soldiers is appalling.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:23 am |
  10. Octavio

    I felt the same, In a small scale, its a family against the other, each being seen eveil from their own point of view, where only humbleness, forgiving and communication of wiser beings will lead to a solution....not war

    May 4, 2011 at 7:21 am |
  11. Sean .

    Thank you, Stephen, for putting into exactly the right words what I was feeling about the celebrations. They made my skin crawl, but since I now live in New York City and moved here after 9/11, I was reluctant to say much. The only two people with whom I discussed my feelings were both NYC natives, and both agreed that celebrating was inappropriate. Thanks, again

    May 4, 2011 at 7:19 am |
  12. syandyh

    It's human to be angry. It's human to want a revenge. If I'm American, I'll start to worry again now. Hero and criminal, it's just a matter of which side you are. :-p

    May 4, 2011 at 7:18 am |
  13. Mark

    I have to agree with the article. While it may seem like human nature to revel in the death of an enemy and party in patriotic fervor, is it right? We can feel a sense of relief and ease that our enemy is gone and cannot harm us anymore but would you want this many people being happy that you died or basically dancing on your grave? We all have our enemies, just not as many as bin Laden. I felt more confused by the reaction. How would we feel if we saw Muslims dancing in the street if Obama died?

    May 4, 2011 at 7:15 am |
    • usmc josh

      @ Mark. Obama didnt kill thousands of people. Osama finally received justice or is there too much blood covering your eyes from you bleeding liberal heart to notice that.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:38 am |
  14. Frank

    The following quote from the article by Stephen Prothero helps to put our reaction into perspective. "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." HOWEVER, the Christian's response should be, "that is all true, but we are called to be something other than "human" – we are called to follow the path of "theosis" – to become more like God. That's Orthodox Christianity.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:12 am |
  15. Byrd

    Many of these people celebrating are also the ones who decry sharia law, yet the blood-lust appears just as profound, maybe more so, in Americans dancing in the streets in celebration of death. This is a disgusting spectacle.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:06 am |
  16. Brainy Yak

    Those were not celebrations. Those were a bunch of college students using this as an excuse to run out into the street and party and skip class the next day. If you look at the videos, the crowds are overwhelmingly young. And yes, it did remind me of the scenes out of the Middle East after 9/11. Just plain bad manners. The two families I know that had a loved one directly involved in 9/11 (one killed, one at Ground Zero) were not in the streets. They were in each others arms.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:05 am |
    • Caspar

      This is what we call "whitewashing". You know as well as the rest of us that many people were out celebrating Bin Laden's death, even if a few just used it as an excuse to party.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:35 am |
  17. Paul

    I am glad Osama is dead. I rejoiced when I heard the news. Since then I have looked at myself and wondered what kind of person I am. Osama was an extremely bad person. His death has, and will, bring comfort to millions of people. But to party, rejoice, at the taking of a human life is not human. I thank God for his demise, but I will not party becuase he died.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:04 am |
    • To the Holier Than Thou Idiot

      You won't party? Super. I'll take your place in the buffet line.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  18. Keith

    Most of those depicted celebrating after Bin Laden's death were teenagers or college students-they were young children when 9-11 happened and do not have the same appreciation as do adults who lived through it or had a better understanding of the consequences of their actions. While older adults were certainly present, you did not see them participating by jumping up and down and chanting. Mostly, they just reflected or stood calmly by and took in the moment introspectively in their own personal way. I don't believe it was necessarily a wise choice to act jubilant, and I did not participate publicly, but I understand why some did. Just as most of us did in our youth we don't always react appropriately to a given situation and learn, with time, what are more appropriate responses.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:03 am |
  19. Jayanti

    “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.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:01 am |
    • Paul

      Very nice.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:07 am |
    • FattyLumpkin

      Except Martin Luther King never said this. As far as I can tell, this quote is no older than Bin Laden's death. It was apparently attributed to King to give it moral weight.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:18 am |
    • Sat


      May 4, 2011 at 7:21 am |
    • SR

      Nice, except for the fact that MLK never said that first sentence in the quote. Might be good to study something before posting it as a quote. I'm sure MLK's family wouldn't want something false attributed to them the same way any of us would.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:22 am |
    • Karen

      Very nice, indeed, Jayanit! I agree 100%.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:29 am |
    • Margie

      I don't think MLK ever said that.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:36 am |
    • To the Holier Than Thou Idiot


      May 4, 2011 at 8:23 am |
    • concerned citizen


      May 4, 2011 at 9:12 am |
  20. larkwoodgirl

    This articls reads as if it was written by Carrie Bradshaw. I don't like the celebrating either, but I have no qualms about admitting that I am glad that Bin Laden came to the same violent in that he had unleashed on others.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:00 am |
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