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. Paul Anderson

    Like many of my friends, I had very mixed reactions to the images of celebration in Washington D.C., New York, Boston and other locations. On the one hand, I recognize and understand feeling emotions of satisfaction and even elation over FINALLY bringing justice to the mastermind behind the horrific terrorist attack that killed so many of our loved ones on 9/11. However, it certainly did bring to my mind the images of celebration in many middle-eastern countries on 9/11 and had me questioning how we as a country are any different than those we criticize. I've finally come to the conclusion that I wish we as a nation could respond to the removal of OBL by acting like we've simply accomplished what we set out and knew we would – maybe a simple "yes" and small fist pump, and then simply return to our life as free American citizens. I think that reaction would probably infuriate OBL more than the massive celebrations. Having said that, this certainly is an event that is unlike any other in our history, so trying to figure out what is the appropriate response is difficult. At the end of the day, that's what is so beautiful about our country – we have the freedom to react in whatever way we personally see fit, without fear of punishment.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  2. MichaelOne

    He should have been flushed down a toilet.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  3. Nick Stone

    So what is your opinion on the death of Bin Laden? By reading your article, I'm left with the feeling that perhaps you would have preferred that he not be killed and lived his days out in hiding planning more terrorist attacks because you are in awe of the mystery of death. Yes, taking another human life is a serious matter, but sometimes it is the best and only option. Being a so called religious scholar, you should know that from your reading of the Old Testament. I just always find it amazing how you some people that teach at or attend some elite school or write a book or article think that they are so much smarter than the rest of American and you feel that you have everything figured out and all the answers. Maybe you guys should get out a little more often and see how the real world really operates. It is ridiculous and insulting to compare American celebrations of OBL's death to those in the Muslim world's celebration of murder of thousands of innocent Americans from 9/11. In case you failed to understand who and what OBL was, maybe you should go back and do a little reading and realize that he called for the destruction on all Americans and didn't care whether you were a man, woman, or child. And he certainly didn't care if you had any moral misgivings about killing, because he would have blown you up or cut your throat without a second thought. It's people like you that disgust me because you sit back and want to criticize and second guess people that are actually out doing something and not hiding in safety like you. I spent over 3 years in the middle east with the army and I can assure you that if you had actually stepped up to the plate, grown a pair and went out and actually made some contribution to society, then you would realize how misled and ignorant your views are because they will get you killed against the people you think we shouldn't kill. Also, how is celebrating his death a need to fear for our national security? He and his followers never needed a reason before when they attacked us and murdered innocent people. Instead of spending your time writing uneducated articles, I would suggest that you spend a little more time praying and thanking God that there are people out there brave enough to do whatever is necessary to protect you even though you are a coward and undeserving of that protection.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • Wes

      Nick you have said what most of my friends and neighbors feel. Perhaps those who have never defended our people and this land should reflect on their on their own views and how those views are protected by those who have defended their rights with honor, their lives, and a determination to serve this nation in spite of those who denigrate those who celebrate justice. This is not about and eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth. This is about justice and protecting the innocent among us. Is it not better to place a mill stone around the neck of those who harm the innocent and throw them into the sea!!!
      Thanks Nick

      May 4, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  4. Unaffected

    Let's see now; what am I going to do today or anytime within sight that I would not have done if bin Laden had not been assassinated? Nothing. Well, except to write these sentences. Comedians are paid to make us laugh. News people are paid to get our attention, and so pretty much everything found in the "news" is laced with as much emotion-tugging rhetoric as is possible. But the reality is that I am almost entirely unaffected and will move through my days wondering just when we forgot that the news business is a commercial enterprise.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:26 am |
  5. Vince

    There is another reason to cringe at celebrations. We should have respect for our enemies. Respect for your enemies makes your fight more honorable. Fighting cowards and evil is not that hard, and not terribly honorable. Fighting a worthy opponent is tough and honorable.

    Pentagon named this mission "geronimo" very approppriately. Geronimo was also a brutal enemy at a diifferent age. Look up geronimo in wikipedia to see how he was the original "terrorist", and how we treated him when we captured him.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:26 am |

    While i too am uneasy over the celebrating death issue; i will be the first to say that I think American's had every right to celebrate that night. Did i see any drunken, disorderly citizens? No i did not. I saw a bunch of college students, military personnel, victim's family members, etc who awoke from bed to come to the streets to show their pride and support for their country and its recent mission. Do I think they were celebrating the death of someone? No i do not. I think it was much more than the word of his death. I think they were celebrating justice, celebrating the victory, celebrating the little bit of closure they can be offered. After 10 long years, this "animal" has finally been caught. I think our military and those brave men did an excellent job with the entire mission. If it wasnt for excellent planning and such; our men would've not come out of there unscathed. Osama bin Laden was not a human being. Humans do not plan and kill thousands upon thousands of innocent people; not just American's. He was an evil that had to be eliminated and killing him was a necessary evil that had to be done for the betterment of EVERYONE in this world. The guy killed thousands of people over the past years and he was lucky to leave this world in the easy way he did. We are not celebrating the death but more of the victory our country completed. It's been a long, hard fight for our military and finally; they have their man.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  7. Jordan

    I agree. While I understand why we want to "celebrate" and "cheer", however, look at the similarities between "us" and "them." We are only throwing fuel on the fire for the hatred of Americans.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:25 am |
    • Adam

      So not celebrating will make our enemys change their minds of us? C'mon man, use some common sense.

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


    May 4, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  9. spacewizard

    Americans partying in the streets after Bin Laden's death is just 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 9:24 am |
  10. Rick

    It OK to have the celebration of OBL Death. The Middle East got up and Danced over 9/11. Its about time the US got to dance for once. We should of burned some flags while we were at it. Right back at ya, Middle East..

    May 4, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Adam

      What country's flag would we burn? We're not fighting any particular country, but an ideology. That's why this is an unwinnable war. Ignorance like yours is what people around the world use for reputations of all Americans.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  11. Proust

    Meet the author. The most sissified man in the world.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Victor Castillo

      So gay even gay people think he is gaaaaay!!!!

      May 4, 2011 at 9:58 am |
  12. i cant belive is not butter

    You did celebrate in the streets do!...its the same, two wrongs don't make it rite,be happy the enemy is out but going to the streets like animals is just wrong we are america ,we are supose to set an example ,we are not some third world country...when you join the army they teach you that, we lead by example....

    May 4, 2011 at 9:22 am |
  13. Stephen

    It's hypocritical for anybody to be comfortable with the death of anyone. Ask yourself how he directly effected your life. Each man and woman is responsible for their own actions...he didn't fly the planes...he didn't pull every trigger, to put all of your hate squarely on one person is naive. I'm not sayng he is innocent, but no man is no more or less valuable than the next. Hate breeds hate. Don't let the media's version of bin Laden incite you into rage, think for yourself and wake up to your own humanity.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:21 am |
    • Adam

      How many people saw Hitler throw Jews into gas chambers? Even if he didn't pull a single trigger or push a single button doesn't mean he's not guilty. Osama obviously didn't fly those planes but he was equally as guilty. Just because you're too high and mighty to celebrate justice being served doesn't make you right and the people enjoying themselves just like our enemys.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:15 am |
  14. Brad

    I don't disagree with celebrating, but we're taking it too far. I've spoken with family abroad and they are saying "Why are the Americans celebrating so much? Do they WANT to provoke these terrorists to strike them again?" If we keep rubbing it in their faces, they're going to strike back, and then we'll be crying again. We are perpetuating a vicious cycle.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  15. karen

    Stephen (and anyone cringing at my elation),
    If you deployed in support of OEF/OIF, made sacrifice in your personal life to turn the tide in the War on Terror, you would understand. It's very personal and satisfying to see bin Laden cornered and destroyed.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  16. God on a stick

    Me thinks the author has some valid points. Too many of the revelers looked mindlessly half drunk. It would appear more reverent to celebrate a death like this reflectively with a fine Belgian ale or a port that tequila shots.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:20 am |
    • Victor Castillo

      Choose your own poison!I like my Tequila with a little salt and lime.Arriva Mexico!!!Oh wait it aint Cinco De Mayo yet.It sure feeeeeeels like it though!!!!

      May 4, 2011 at 9:56 am |
  17. Brad

    Most of these "its wrong to celebrate death" people fail to realize that the celebrations had little to do with death but more about finality. We celebrate because he was brought to justice and won't terrorize again. We celebrate because we no longer have to hear his voice taunt us in his recordings. We celebrate because it helps bring closure to the tragedy of 9/11. We celebrate because good triumphed over evil. People would have celebrated equally had he been captured alive if not more so.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • Ivan

      Brad, you can not speak for everyone that was celebrating. Though, you might be celebrating for your reasons, others were celebrating the fact that Osama Binladen was finaly dead.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:35 am |

      and Ivan- how can you speak on behalf of the people who were celebrating claiming that they were celebrating his death and only his death? Im sure they were celebrating hs death but more along the lines of what COMES WITH THE DEATH OF THIS MAN.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  18. Joe

    It was sickening to watch my fellow Americans partying in front of the White House like it was a frat party. There were even cheerleaders from the local university doing "stunts". Pathetic, because while we cheer the death of one man, 1.3 billion Chinese are takign over the world.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:19 am |
    • Vinnie

      Oh yeah! Don't forget the beach balls.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:22 am |
    • Marc

      you don't like it, go live somewhere else, no one is forcing you to stay here.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:25 am |

      how about the fact that finally our younger generations are taking pride in their country and its accomplishments? Its morons like you who probably wont even recite the pledge of allegiance who frustrate the younger generation like me. We grew up and were young kids when 9/11 happened and it touched us even at that age....actually infuriated us just as much as any grown adult. We have every right to celebrate our country's victory and do so in a safe manner. All the more power to the proud AMERICAN students.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • Victor Castillo

      Damn it I missed the chearleaders?!!!!Nobody told me.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • David

      Joe, I doubt you're an American, but for argument sake let’s say you are. Comparing American’s to osama is like comparing God and the Devil. I’m not getting all religious on you, I’m just making a comparison. Where in the world do we go and kill innocent people? Name a place? Just one! I’m sure you can’t. Now I’m sure you will try to compare our military at war in different regions of the world, as the same thing as osama and the rats that follow him, but it’s not the same. Go vote for Ron Paul, and if you truly hate America, as you sound as though you do, move to the middle east and live with your brothers in the sand.

      As for Joseph King, I know osama wasn’t the face of Islam, but that is what most American’s think about every time they used to see him, and the good news they won’t anymore, he’s DEAD.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
  19. Sean

    th only injustice was the illegal dumping of trash in the sea!

    May 4, 2011 at 9:17 am |
    • Balanced99

      Very well said!

      To the author – this is a step towards our liberty. We celebrate his death not only beacuase he was directly responsible for the death of thousands of our fellow citizens and other innocent people throughout the world. People who lost their liberty forever. He is responsible for the wasted expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars of our money! If you don't want to celebrate that – CELEBRATE THE FACT THAT HE WAS COMMITTTED TO CONTINUING INNOCENT PEOPLE – WHICH HE CAN DO NO MORE. It makes sense that those who lost friends and loved ones during these tragic events would first reflect on that. Lastly, it's past time that the theoretical 'scholars' join the real world and realize that a good portion of the rest of the world don't care what we think or what our values are. Leave them be; but leave them be with notice that if they do anything to infringe on our liberty – they will pay for it with their lives. It is the only way to deal with people who will devote their lives to destroying ours!

      May 4, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  20. David

    We are not like the Middle East or Islam. We didn't drag Osama's dead body through the streets and beat it with a stick, and we didn't hang his dead body from a light pole and hit it with bats and throw rocks at it. We didn't cut off his head while he was still alive and scream to god how "Good we are because of it". We found a murderer, and sent in our Military to shoot him in the head for killing thousands of American's and others around the world.

    Some American's needed to celebrate this out loud, some chose to do it quietly to themselves. WHO CARES. We killed a man who was a worthless human. If islam doesn't like the way we treated the body, who cares! islam needs to find better ROLE MODELS. Osama was the face of islam. If I were a Muslim I 'd be happy as hell that osama is dead. They can all feel like their Muslim "Poster Boy" is dead, and people won't relate Muslim's to osama anymore.

    Just saying!

    May 4, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • Clyde

      Amen. I will celebrate the fact that an innocent life, or thousands, somewhere was spared because of the death of Bin Laden. That is worth celebrating.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • Joe

      David, I hear what your saying, but trying to understand. So, we got revenge against a "Worthless Human being" for the atrocities he committed. Isn't that what Bin Laden was also doing? Getting revenge for the atrocities that the American government has committed over the years killing innocent civilians? Americans don't have any remorse over what our government has done? Doesn't that make us in America worthless human beings? Are we no better than Bin Laden?

      Just saying

      May 4, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • Joseph R. King Jr.

      David – OBL was NOT a leader nor the face of Islam just like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Chaney, Milosevic, all the various cult leaders, the entire Church during the 14/15th century etc... none were the face of any religion what they did they on their own chose to do so did those that followed their twisted ideology! although it is a great relief that OBL is now gone and justice is done and some closure for those who suffered and lost dear ones because of him and his twisted 15th century thinking!

      May 4, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • Robert

      Thank you for this article. We can be just and serve justice without being arrogant. I was very pleased that the way the operation was handled where our team went in in a precision strike rather than a bombing that would have killed many innocent women and children as is done in Israel and Palestine.

      But, this is tarnished when we see people celebrate a death. We should remember those that we lostr almost 10 years ago and the principles and values that OBL tried to take away from us but could not.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:35 am |
    • Unaffected

      "We" wouldn't do othis or that in the US? You don't think that there are more than a few people here in the good old US of A that would go berzerk on bin Laden's dead body if given the chance? Our news cameras go to where the noise is without stopping to take a poll to see if the noise is representative of most people. All the world sees is a bunch of American students – theoretically our best and finest – chanting mindless slogans in our streets. Why is this even on the news? Because it's noisy, easy to locate, and easy to capture, not because it represents who we really are or our best aspirations. We might want to try to stop reaching meaningful conclusions about other cultures that are based on the images that the news media presents to us.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:40 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.