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. T. Dodds

    I strongly disagree with the partying over the death of OBL. That being said, The man was a mass murderer, a criminal. He is no different from the criminal that got killed in your hometown last night while robbing a convenience store except that his evil was on a much grander scale. It's always a tragedy when a lost person dies, but we shouldn't treat OBL's death any different from any other criminal who reaps what he sows.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:16 am |
  2. US Army

    You are a disgusting American. You have not sacrificed for your country, and to criticize Americans for celebrating a noble victory instead of criticism the enemy that wants to murder your family makes you a coward. People like you make me sick, and I'm sort for the students that are forced to listen to your liberal coward garbage.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:16 am |
  3. Barbara

    I, too, felt uncomfortable watching the celebrations in the streets over the death of Bin Laden. To be clear; I am very glad that Bin Laden is dead and I think the SEAL team operated with precision and professionalism. I believe in my country and I mourned and cried over the events of 9/11 and all subsequent terrorist events. However, to cheer in the streets brings us down to the level of those radical muslims who cheered for our loss on 9/11. I don't want to be categorized with them.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:15 am |
    • tom t

      Well said

      May 4, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  4. MichaelOne

    He needed to die, and die he did, in a manner more dignified than he deserved. May he roast in the fires of hell for all eternity.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:15 am |
  5. Jim

    The author makes a poor comparison between us celebrating and Muslims celebrating after the 9/11 attacks. There is a HUGE difference - they were celebrating cowardly attacks that killed 3000 innocent civilians, while we're celebrating the just execution of a cowardly, vicious murderer who planned, funded, and ordered the murder of 3000 innocent civilians. There is a HUGE difference and if he can't see it he's got his Bostonian liberal hat on too tight ...

    May 4, 2011 at 8:15 am |
    • jkost


      May 4, 2011 at 8:26 am |
  6. zenarcher

    What a different picture we presented, when we trained and funded the Taliban and Osama bin Laden to fight our Cold War by proxy in Afghanistan against the Soviets. The same can be said about Saddam. It seems to many people that "evil, cowardly and vile" are not due to the act being perpetrated, but rather to whom the acts are being perpetrated upon. The story of "Frankenstein" offered a good moral lesson. Sometimes, a project started with the best of intentions comes back to destroy it's creator.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:14 am |
  7. Joe

    It is amazing how many biased teachers get jobs and here I am ready to actually talk about the pros and cons about this and have no classroom. He should be holding nuetral discussions on the subject, not grandstanding to get some attention on CNN. It amazes me that people are upset over killing a man who killed thousands, give me a break.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:14 am |
  8. ktom

    The difference between us celebrating in streets over a death and those in the Muslim world is that we killed a man who masterminded the killing of thousands of innocent people they celebrate the killing of innocent people...I mean come on this author sounds like he'd be upset to see people celebrating the death of Hitler. I'm glad he's dead ill celebrate it and I'm also glad we respected the body and gave it a proper service and burial. We respect our enemies but happy they are dead.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:11 am |
  9. sagebrush shorty

    So go ahead and cringe if that's how you feel. I really don't care.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:10 am |
  10. Frank

    I question whether this is the right person to be teaching such a course. Forgetting Bin Laden, I can recall many funerals and wakes where the spirit was positive and, yes, even celebratory in its own way. This was the wish of the deceased and it's my own wish. There's certainly the tragedy of people dying "before their time" but there are many who enjoyed a rich life and we're grateful to have known them. And yes, there are those like Bin Laden whose actions are so counter to our definition of humanity that their death is rightly seen as justice and worth expressing our emotions over. The premise that if you didn't lose anyone personally on 9/11 you have no cause for emotion is wrong. Bin Laden struck at the foundations of our society and shook many people to their core. He failed to bring us down but he certainly left a legacy. That he's no longer around to try again is worth celebrating.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:08 am |
  11. scottp

    Stillin--move to pakistan then you blind and ignorant p.o.s. do you not remember 9/11 ? you need a reminder of how many americans that coward killed? you communist b#stard.-–An American Soldier

    May 4, 2011 at 8:08 am |
  12. will

    In 1945, a sailor "in the street" kissed a complete stranger in celebration of V-J day. This is what this was, a celebration that an evil cruel human being's life was put to a much anticipated hault. To even agree that it reminded you of how the middle east reacted to 9/11 is completely ridiculous. The victims of 9/11 were innocent, that's the difference. America rightfully cheered in the streets, baseball games, homes, businesses,ect. And they should have or I feel you can't call yourself a true American.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:07 am |
  13. james

    The site of seeing celebrations in front of the White House and around the country made me "SICK TO MY STOMACH" and as one commentor said brought back memories of peoples living in West Bank and other places in MidEast celebrating our twin towers being destroyed. Two wrongs certainly don't make a right, and we should be more mindful of what took place on Sept. 11, 2001 and not act uncivilized and arrogant for the wold to see. The death of this evil despot should not be a time for celebration, but a time for reflection on what transpired on 9/11/2001 and not to insight our enemies to want to do even more harm to us. PLEASE STOP THE MADNESS!!!

    May 4, 2011 at 8:07 am |
  14. ejwejw

    I can't say I was happy or felt like celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden, but I was greatly relieved that this chapter in history is over. However, I cannot fault those who are celebrating or partying over his death. Nor do I fault the black humor postings, jokes, and comments concerning Bin Laden's demise being made publicly. Everybody has had to deal with 9/11 in their own way. This could very well be some people's way of releasing the anger, fear, and uncertainty of the past 10 years. If this works for them, so be it.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:07 am |
    • bobbyr

      exactly...let people do what feels right to them...

      May 4, 2011 at 8:22 am |
    • ejwejw

      I will, however, definitely celebrate when all our fighting young men come home.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:40 am |
  15. Sally

    Liberals are SO self righteous! Always telling other people what to do, because they don't have a life themselves.
    Way to prove the point, yet again, Mr. ...what's your name.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:05 am |
    • James Woods

      This is not a liberal viewpoint. I am very conservative. Your statement lacks substance. If you have a position, state it and why you support it.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:11 am |
    • Bob

      @Sally what, isn't that what the right wingers do–push their Christian agenda on everyone–don't be gay, don't have an abortion, judge, judge, judge. If it is not right for you, don't do it. No one is telling anyone what to do. Get a life.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:11 am |
  16. MichaelOne

    He got better than he deserved. He should have been stuffed in pigskin and planted in the Staten Island landfill where the WTC remains are.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:05 am |
  17. LiZ

    Wimps, I say! How dare those of you look down upon those of us who are grateful and at peace that a WORLD terrorist is dead!!! Unbelievable you should say anything to defend that murderer of innocent Americans. Just rediculous...and inconceivable!!! Justice has been served...justly.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:03 am |
  18. Mike

    Please! When a fanatic who wants to destroy my way of life is killed, I celebrate. This isnt about the mystery of life. Its about justice for a stone cold killer, who chose to attack our country on our soil. Hence, I celebrate. In a world of gray, this is black and white. Its the only message our enemies understand. What a bunch of wussies we've become. Get over it.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:02 am |
    • Greg

      As much as I usually identify with people like Stephen, I completely agree with you on this issue. Those comments about "not celebrating a death" just come from self righteous wannabe intellectual liberals. They need a reality check sometimes.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:19 am |
  19. scottp

    Katrina did u not see his cowards saw the heads off of americans? i am an american soldier and us in the military couldnt be prouder.we just killed the Hitler of our generation.ROT IN HELL USAMA.and celebrate loud n proud AMERICA!!

    May 4, 2011 at 8:01 am |
    • Katrina

      Scott, I did see them saw off the heads of Americans – it was awful. My feelings of pride in a military that keeps me safe night after night has nothing to do with not wanting to celebrate death of UBL.

      I understand that UBL was a problem that needed to be erradicated. I hope with his death, people are given the closure that they needed after 9/11.

      Thank you for your service to this country.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:20 am |
  20. Joe

    "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." So poetic, Stephen. What ELSE have you done with your life.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:00 am |
    • James Woods

      Attack the argument, not the person. If you have a disagreement with his position, make a counterstatement. Personal attacks add nothing to the conversation.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:07 am |
    • Patrick

      James Woods,

      It's also a convenient way to shield yourself from having to stand up for your personal beliefs. It's easy to stand at the podium and throw out words, it's difficult to stand in the face of the aggressor and defend those words. If you make a statement of belief, it IS you.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:10 am |
    • Seriously

      What have you done with your life, Joe?

      May 4, 2011 at 8:13 am |
    • James Woods

      That's just the point. You don't throw out words if you want to have a rational and unbiased discussion. You have to state your position and than support it with substance. Even if I disagree with you, I respect you for having a view and your right to hold it. We are Americans and we should be free to believe what we want. Debating our positions on the positions themselves reinforces that respect.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:14 am |
    • john

      James do you by any chance act for a living? 🙂

      May 4, 2011 at 8:20 am |
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