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. Jay

    If you don't want to celebrate, fine. Don't. But, one, don't judge those who do. And hopefully, they won't judge you. And two, don't spend all day telling everyone, 'hey look at me! I'm not celebrating because blah, blah, blah.' It's not about you.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:57 am |
  2. Trader John

    I was glad, but I did not celebrate. I once heard a proverb that says something like, the importance of a man is measured by the importance of his enemies. I do not wish to grant bin Laden that importance in this world. That bug is squashed, lets move on.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:55 am |
  3. Laurie

    It was JUSTICE and death in his religion is to be celebrated..I think he said he get a few virgins...lol...so we did him a favor.....actually we did a lot of people a favor..and as far as what every other county thinks of us...the USA...who cares..

    May 4, 2011 at 8:55 am |
  4. My Thoughts

    Here's the difference with the celebrations. The 3,000+ killed on 9/11 were innocent people and when they were celebrated by people in the Middle East it was preverse. OBL was far from innocent and as a human race, we should be happy he is no longer with us. I may not have taken to the streets to celebrate but I traded many fist pumps and high fives with my friends. It is a day to celebrate that this evil has been removed from this world. You would have to have the emotion of a cardboard box not to feel joy. I have no problem with those that took to the streets because I understand the difference in their celebrations. I hope others in this forum do too.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:54 am |
    • Adam

      100% right. On 9/11 the members of the Arab world celebrating an unprovoked attack on the US is inconcivable, what small groups of Americans did in the streets was to celebrate justice being served. From what i saw and heard most of these people were cheering for a rare tangible victory in this almost decade war on terror and were hoping for this to end and bring our troops home.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:07 am |
  5. edCP

    Why does "Concerned atheist" insult idiots?

    May 4, 2011 at 8:54 am |
  6. MorEviL

    More Party after Ghadafi's Death. He's worst than Bin Ladin. The thug has been terrorizing his own country.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:53 am |
  7. Honey

    Are we not better than those that celebrate the death at of others?

    May 4, 2011 at 8:53 am |
  8. spacewizard

    Americans celebrating in the streets after Bin Ladin's death was like Detroit Lions fans celebrating like they won the Super Bowl after they win one regular season game. The score is still Osama-3000 : USA-1, but hey, at least we're not winless.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • Nope You're spacedumb

      That 3000 wins of Bin Laden were during the elimination round and have no more bearing. The U.S. had just won the knock-out game and advance to the semis against Ghadafi. I'm sure U.S. will win waiting for the finals.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:02 am |
    • e

      Yeah, not even close. More like a comback win for America. 2000-1500. Don't be a smart-mouthed idiot trying to make our country sound bad AGAIN.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:04 am |
  9. FallenSethangel

    In my opinion the celebration of Bin Laden's death is what everyone in America should be doing. Many Americans were killed due to this evil piece of trash on 9/11. Since 9/11 our troops have been deployed numerous times away from their families to keep us safe and fighting the war on terrorism. This is a huge victory for them and all Americans. To feel remorse and pity for Bin Laden's death is allowing the victims of 9/11 and all our troops that have been killed keeping us safe, die in vain. God Bless our troops and there families as they continue to keep us safe. I am proud to support them and proud to be an American. Thank you Navy Seals! Thank you US Troops!

    May 4, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  10. dusty

    seriously, by going out and doing that you are just as bad as them, maybe you would like to burn some flags while your at it ?
    hipocritical dingbats.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  11. Atheism is GREAT!

    People weren't only celebrating the death of the head of a terrorist organization, but rejoicing also because the person that was responsible for 9/11 was brought to justice.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • fuzzy

      Please don't represent Atheists with such ridiculous comments.

      Again, leave religion out of it altogether. The grand majority of the revelers were kids. 18-24 year olds looking to get wasted....because that's what they do. I probably would have done the same thing had my friends sent out the call to party back when I was in school. However, being 20 years the other side of that time of my life.....now, I know better. Some day, you will too.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  12. Big Ol BTD

    Hopefully the pictures of his death are released soon. Personally I enjoy seeing a turban standing in as a brain bucket.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:51 am |
  13. deadmanwalking47

    i cringed when i saw people with no other choice jump to their deaths on 911.i cringed when i saw all those missing posters when the buildings fell,and i cringed when i saw the sadness on the faces of those who lost somebody on 911.but i sure as hell did'nt cringe when i saw all those sobs dancing and enjoying it in the streets of middle eastern countries,and i sure as hell DID NOT CRINGE one damn bit when i saw my fellow americans celebrating the death of a man who had hidden behind religion and who appointed himself judge,jury,and executioner to people who were innocent and who he did'nt even know!if i would have been there,i would have toasted marshmallows and sang happy trails outside his million dollar mansions smoking remains! to me ,in my 48 years,justice never tasted so good!

    May 4, 2011 at 8:51 am |
    • Antha

      My sentiments exactly... very well said. There are all these stories now about how he (bin laden) was unarmed. So? What about the thousands of 'unarmed' citizens he killed on 9/11?

      May 4, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  14. Celebrate death?

    No death should ever be celebrated.
    We should not find excuses from the past to justify our poor behaviour in the present. Barbarians celebrate the death of their enemies by joyfully dancing. Civilised nations mourn the loss of life and celebrate the hope the transition will bring.
    I am not surprised by the comments in the lead article, which states those closer to the 9/11 event were more muted in their responses to the death of Bin Laden. These people have internalised death and 'know' death. When people are in this place they understand that no death is to be celebrated. This does not mean that we could not express relief that this chapter is closed now and hopefully the world can move on.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:51 am |
  15. Agnim

    Vultures & scavengers DO celebrate the arrival of a new carcass! Fancy that.

    Fascinating that after the PREVENTABLE 911, there was just one small insignificant group, OF THE ENTIRE WORLD, that publicly celebrated the 911 destruction.
    Americans have now made themselves as insignificant, either for celebrating the arrival of a new carcass, or for FAILING to publicly beat back the celebrations of their vultures & scavengers.

    With Americans' immense influence in the world, maniac muslims must now be thinking that their macabre actions and celebrations get full support from fellow devils, vultures & scavengers in America!

    May 4, 2011 at 8:50 am |
    • Edward

      You seem to have "devils, vultures & scavengers" on the brain, Agnim. Are you Muslim, by any chance?

      May 4, 2011 at 9:09 am |
  16. Susan

    I bet you suffer from constipation. Try a little celebration (but not too much).

    May 4, 2011 at 8:50 am |
  17. Rick

    The comment about the roman empire is spot on.

    Don't delude yourselves into thinking you're fundamentally different from those who celebrate death in the middle east. It's all about revenge, no matter where you're from. Not the noblest of human emotions.

    I'm a republican... But think to yourseves. How many civilians died because of Osama? Forget about Intentions or ideology. And how many civilians died as a result of Bush. Again, forget about intentions. Life is war.. Americans aren't 'better' simply because they're on the winning side.

    This is an intelligent blog.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:50 am |
  18. gingersrule1

    Its like CNN wants to see how riled up we will get. I have red hair guys. I don't need any help. So this guy is probably a child molester if he sees fit to compare his life to that of OBL. Your sense of justice is hugely flawed. I would also say that most young people can't handle the realities of the injustice of our world. As a pastor it is your responsibility to teach people about how death is the next step to something greater that is not decided by us. Instead you would prepare remarks as such about people who have dreamed about the death of the greatest murderer of all time next to Hitler that say its okay to our enemies to destroy our lives without consequence. Americans don't do a dance every time a Muslim dies. That's just you internalizing your racism. When innocents died in 9/11 the extremist Muslim world did a dance. You are comparing Americans celebrating true justice in the killing of a murderer. You are warning them as though OBL is going to have his 39 virgins and a spot in heaven. I can tell you one thing for sure you silly little girly boy. If OBL was gonna shoot you I wouldn't step in front of the bullet.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:48 am |
  19. Concerned atheist

    You're an idiot

    May 4, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  20. Russ

    Oh, for crying out loud. We don't live in a perfect world. And – yes – there are some people who just need killing. Osama bin Laden was one of them. The world is better off without him. If you want to regret something – and some of you seem to need to – then don't regret that he was killed. Regret that killing him was necessary.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:44 am |
    • Joe

      So true. Im getting sick of these articles. Religion this and Jesus loves everyone...Forget that. This guy was planning another attack. He changed the course of history. The devil is in this world and we took a big step in taking evil out.....

      May 4, 2011 at 8:49 am |
    • Whit

      "Regret that killing him was necessary." Thank you for articulating what I've been trying to find the words for. 🙂

      May 4, 2011 at 8:50 am |
    • tootmonkey

      Well stated.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:57 am |
    • knowledge2power

      when you look at situations where a person is responsible for the deaths of one person or a thousand people it is hard to get by the fact that life is lost. To people of the spirit it goes far deeper than the loss of life. The devil preys on emotion and vulnerability. Looking past the fact that people are dead and focusing on the aftermath of the death is where the real issue lies. If Osama Bin Laden killed out of hatred and used your anger to force you into hatred of him then the devil not only won by using his hatred against him, he also won by using the anger of those who hate Bin Laden against them.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:59 am |
    • i cant belive is not butter

      I agree that binladen had it coming...but celebrateing in the street like the aarrrabbbbsss do,was a little sickenig,I wanted him to pay for what he did but at the same time celebrateing it, just dosnt feel rite. I think we are better than that ,we are not some third world country ,,,,we are better than that....

      May 4, 2011 at 9:09 am |
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