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. Justin

    If you defy the new Roman Empire, you get the sword. Plain and simple. Good riddance.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  2. John

    Bin Laden's actions in the past were not those of a civilized human, something we all work hard to learn as children. He lost the expectation that the rest of the planet should treat him as an equal. Death is of course a sad concept when applied to friends, family, and people we respect. In this case, it seems our civilization self-corrected.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:29 am |
  3. Sally

    @Bob: How is your saying, "Don't DARE celebrate the death of a mass murder, or you'll make me bawl like a little sissy." not the same as telling people what to do? If you don't comprehend what we're saying, then you've missed the "substance" of the point, because you're too busy sniveling like a little baby.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:28 am |
    • Bob

      @Sally you're missing the point, I'm not saying don't dare do anything. Do what you like. I just think it is a little tacky. No doubt, OBL got what he deserved, and we can all be glad about that. I just think mass celebration a la a college campus is a little classless. It is the same problem I have with so called christians spewing hate–it does no good. Hate all you want, you'll never change someone's mind.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:35 am |
  4. Anthony

    Osama declared war on the U.S. and the west. He killed thousands of innocent people and ruined the the lives of tens of thousand of families. It should be a requirement to celebrate his death. I just hope the fish don't get indigestion.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:27 am |
  5. Superchik

    Thank you, Mr. Prothero! I was starting to think I was the only one...

    May 4, 2011 at 8:26 am |
  6. jercasper@hotmail.com

    I was really surprised by my reaction to the news of Osama's death. I have always been one to respect life, death, and to stand in the shadow of that great mystery in total awe. It truly shocked me when I found myself, not only excited about the death of Osama, but supportive of those who celebrated. What bothers me about this article is the disconnect that the author and his students seem to have with their own humanity. The fact that such an event would even raise the question in their minds, "have we become like them?" is so perplexing to me. A reaction that seemed to initially be brought on by some images on the news that looked familiar – that reason doesn't even make sense. To be that utterly unaware of one's self – incapable of separating one's moral existence from that of a terrorist – is not only mind boggling to me, but seems psychologically unsound. Of course we are all deeply flawed human beings, and we're all subject to the power of that great mystery, and I am painfully aware of my own atrocities and shortcomings, but I do not feel morally superior in the slightest to say that I KNOW I am certainly not like a terrorist, and I can proudly rejoice that evil has been dealt a blow this week. If the question MUST be asked, "why do some people feel it necessary to celebrate this event," I think it is only fair to ALSO ask the question, "why do some people feel it necessary NOT to celebrate this event."

    May 4, 2011 at 8:26 am |
  7. Vance

    May I remind you, sir, that we are at war with terrorism- and specifically for 10 years, taking down the man that murdered thousands of innocent people on American soil. I am not uncomfortable with celebrations. You cannot hold back patriotism. Did Americans celebrate after major battle victories throughout history? Yes, they did. How can you compare American patriots to radical Islam? I can tell you that this bit of celebration is nothing new in history.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:26 am |
  8. OZZY

    For once can America just feel joy and celebration? We have been living under a dark cloud because of the SOB (Bin Laden) for 10 years now. A little celebration and the boost of American morale is a good thing. Stop ripping down something that is good. Just be happy that you are an American for crying outloud.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  9. jmhoosier

    Celebrating the death of a murderer of many innocent people compared to the fundamentalists celebrating the deaths of those thousands of innocent people on 9/11 are not even close to the same. I'm sorry, but I think you are way way off on this one. How can you possibly compare the feelings of relief between the response of the killings of thousands of innocent people to the response of the killing of the guy responsible for those killings? And while I'm not out in the streets partying over it, I'm glad he's dead. You're wrong. Not the same.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  10. Rosemary

    Death and Immortality class? No wonder College Grads can't get a job. OK, maybe a good class for prospective Funeral Directors. I guess Mr. Boston U Prof would be filled with joy if the students had been burning US Flags and chanting, "Death to America." That would probably have made him proud.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:24 am |
  11. john

    Very interesting take on the celebrations.

    While I must admit that the intensity of some of the partying I witnessed on TV made me at first cringe as well, this momentary uneasiness was quickly replaced by pride thanks to a reassuring realization. If bin laden had surrendered instead and was taken alive, the parties would have been no less intense. The smilies just as wide...the blood alcohol levels just as far

    over the legal limit.

    The spontaneous joy and celebration felt throughout the nation gives me great hope...hope that I have not felt in quite some time. This is not about an evil man's death; it is about the unity and strength of the free world.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:23 am |
    • Bob

      I was optimistic, but in less than 24 hours politicians have already begun using it to their advantage. Polarizing people again. why can't all the Bush supporters, simply say Good Job, Obama. We don't agree with everything, but you did something good here, and move on to fighting about all the other things that don't really matter.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:39 am |
  12. chosen

    OH BOO HOO! The celebrations you saw would have been the same if he was captured instead of killed.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  13. Matt

    Nothing changes with Bin Laden's death. We're no safer now than we were last week. We might feel gratified with vengeance, but we should understand that the next "leader" may be even worse. There are still millions who are willing to kill and die for the cause, and the governments that support such actions certainly won't change their policies in the wake of Bin Laden's death.

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

    I wonder how many of these cringing people even remember the events of 9/11?

    May 4, 2011 at 8:21 am |
    • 9/11 Survivor

      This "Cringing Person" was IN the Trade Center when it got hit. I survived by luck of the draw and stood on the street watching people jump to their deaths. I don't need a hat or a shirt or a damn bumper sticker to "never forget." How about you, Michael? Got skin in the game? Bin Laden had to be killed for the greater good, but it changes nothing about what happened that day. All those people are still dead, the kids are still without their mothers and fathers, and terrorism still exists in the world. So have your party, shout your slogans, act like a drunken frat boy if you must, but don't think for one moment you're showing respect to the victims of 9/11.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:15 am |
  15. steve

    It seems there are alot of people around who feel "Holier Than Thou"-–I say rot in hell.......Steve – U.K.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:20 am |
  16. Greg

    Where i agree with you that celebrating death is inappropriate, i completely disagree with you and your fellow student. IN no way shape or form are we like those radicals celebrating 9/11. We celebrated the strategic death of one of the most hated men in the world who is responsible for thousands of innocent humans lives (one that even his won family has disowned) we are not celebrating the death of thousands of innocent business men and women who had no impact on the middle east. So I find this article extremely offensive and feel you should never publish another article again.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:18 am |
    • Greg2

      Absolutely right. My professor gave the exact same ridiculous little speech and I had the same response as you.

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

      While I mostly agree, you're conveniently forgetting the fact that we've killed countless innocent bystanders over the last decade. The cause is different, but the result is comparable. I suggest you don't be do quick to judge.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:24 am |
    • jmhoosier

      Drew, yes, sometimes innocents will be killed in war. It's going to happen no matter how much you try to avoid it. However, no one here danced in the streets or partied over those innocents being killed either. Did they? That's what this article is about. This has nothing to do with sometimes innocents being accidentally killed.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:30 am |
    • Not Drew

      Drew's point is valid, but not exactly accurate. Thousands of civilians have been killed in the wars, as in every war, but no AMericans are dancing and partying in the streets over their demise as happened in the Middle East on 9/11. Our celebrations were specifically in reaction to justice being delivered to Usama Bin Laden, not in the deaths of any innocent.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  17. James

    So what does the thought of it being wrong mean if that is not human? Do conservatives believe that animal nature is the only thing human? If so why do they even care about money, corporations etc.. since it takes more than being a base line animal to create culture.

    So to be clear. Instead of letting terrorists tear us apart, we'll now tear each other apart on their behalf. Since it's also an election year can we expect the whole Bush Vs Obama crowd from politicians to help us along in our divide against each other. Using the death of a terrorist to further the argument, and there by doing the job of the dead man for him? Just to greater efficiency?

    If you take great joy in someones death you're more likely just a sociopath. I'm not sorry he's dead but I hardly believe that it's cause for celebration. Does anyone really think this means all the wars in the world are over? Terrorism has ended?

    Not to be a conspiracy theorist or lessen the accomplishment but tactically now we don't seem to have a reason to be in Afghanistan anymore. It should make any general/admiral wonder, why wouldn't someone give him up. Had to do it before he died of old age. Conceed a victory now for a lowered presence. Just saying. If they're really enemies then I wouldn't exactly go over the deep in celebration. Overconfidence is a bad thing to have in any strategic situation. Just sayin'

    May 4, 2011 at 8:18 am |
  18. Frank Rizzo

    I am so happy that there was a moment of realism for Bin when those Navy seals busted into the room he was in .At that point he knew they got him . And in the end he looked in the eyes of an American soldier .

    May 4, 2011 at 8:18 am |
    • Drew

      Was thinking the same thing man, must have been amazing for him to realize it wasn't worth it and the last person was an American soldier...priceless

      May 4, 2011 at 8:31 am |
    • Hmmm

      I had the same thought........that moment when an arrogant individual realizes it's over and they're done.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:14 am |
  19. Sean

    How about some perspective Mr Prothero....
    The majority of today's college students were 10 or 11 years old when the attacks happened on 9/11/2001. I would think as a college professor YOU would respect the reasons why young citizens, who have spent half of their lifetime with our country at war against terrorism, would come together when the iconic leader of a decade of terror has been taken out. Sir, maybe your reaction to cringed from what you saw was driven NOT by your judgment of others, but by your own realization that you are out of touch with reality living in a world veiled by religion. Personally, I did not celebrate in the streets, call my friends or write a blog on CNN about the news, as the death of bin Laden has been a long time coming. After reading your article, it made me take pause as to why an educated religious scholar teaching a death and immortality course at a major university would publish such rubbish. How about some perspective Mr. Prothero.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:17 am |
    • Peter

      Thank you.. Liberal or Conservative, I weep for our future if these are the teachers of our future generations.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:25 am |
    • Krista

      Couldn't have said it better myself. That thing wasn't human. It's better off at the bottom of the ocean.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:31 am |
    • concerned citizen

      While I agree that it's a necessary thing for a criminal such as Bin Laden to be brought to justice, I do not think that celebrations resembling a pep rally are an appropriate response.
      People who rudely criticize the authors comments obviously don't stop to THINK about the deeper meaning of what he is saying.
      The vulgar displays are not just celebrating Bin Laden death, they are broadcasting to the world how brutal and animalistic human beings still are.
      Ok so we " got him" this time, then they fight back then we fight back etc....then on and on till we wake up and realize that human beings killing eachother shows a FAILURE to evolve into a civilized species and is cause for dismay, not celebration.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:32 am |
    • Bel

      Um, no. This was not about students "coming together." This was an excuse for shameful, immature conduct on the part of thousands of Americans. I am in no way mourning bin Laden, but I'm also not having a party over it. It was a dirty job that had to be done but that doesn't mean we should take to the streets with a beer in one hand and a flag in the other.

      And please, all of you. Stop talking about "patriotism" as if it were a wonderful value to be upheld. It's fine to be proud of one's country and history, of course, but in the end it is PEOPLE that matter, not borders.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  20. AirmanRR

    what a pu$$y – take this story down.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:17 am |
    • Shamrock6

      Ha ha ha....an 'Airman' calling someone else a pu$$y. THAT is classic.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:33 am |
    • Mike in Houston

      Well said and I agree 100%. These morons who wear their feelings on their sleeves are a big part of the problem these days. Political correctness from one side of a war will never work and is destroying this nation. Call it WHAT IT IS and stop the sugar coating... Pathetic to say the least.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:39 am |
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