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. Lisa

    Going back to some people need to grow up...the 2 comments above mine would be great examples. Act like mature Americans and not immature morons.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:54 am |
    • *SIGH*

      But Lisa, being mature and classy is not considered 'patriotic' by those who have the hardest time defining, let alone spelling 'patriotism' 😉

      May 4, 2011 at 10:09 am |
    • Victor Castillo

      Blah Blah Blah,stay in the kitchen where you belong woman.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  2. Him

    Sucks to BU!

    May 4, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  3. KCRick

    Every soul, no matter how perceived as evil, is never the less, a soul that matters to God and his family. We should pray for forgiveness not celebrate in the streets. When I saw our young people celebrating, it reminded me of the Arab youth celebrating after the fall of the second tower. Do we lower ourselves to that level?

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

    Nick Stone...you need to calm yourself. The guy who posted this offered his feelings and you attack him for some reason. I am glad they finally got Bin Laden, but am concerned about retaliation. I saw the celebrations over this on the news. While, I think celebrating justice is good, celebrating death is not. I did see some (not all) people acting like fools at a frat party chanting USA over and over. It did make me uneasy. I do love my country, but just thought some folks need to be a little more mature. Justice has been served. Death is not a cause for celebration, no matter who it is.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:53 am |
    • Nick Stone


      Yes, I am sure that there were some people drunk and acting foolish, but the majority of the people that I saw were out celebrating justice and joy that he was no longer in the picture and that thousands of innocent lives had been avenged somewhat. Why are some of you people worried about retaliations from these celebrations? Let me tell you that retaliations are going to come no matter what even if even American posted articles like the author. These people really don't know why, but they hate us and hate our way of life and don't need any reason at all to motivate them to kill you. The sooner people like you realize that the better and you can stop living in fear about attacks that are going to happen no matter what you do. Perhaps you need to go back and read the article a few more times until it clicks in your head what the author is really saying and passing judgement himself.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • Missing the point

      "Perhaps you need to go back and read the article a few more times until it clicks in your head what the author is really saying and passing judgement himself." I agree with you Nick Stone on this comment. I think people need to stop and think about what it is they are saying because it sounds a lot like they are passing judgement as well. I think alot of buzz words are just being thrown out there "I cringed". Perhap those of you who "cringed" need to search your souls and figure out why. Let me asked a few questions to those of you "who cringed", what did you think was gonna happen when they found Bin Laden? Would the celebration have been warranted if he were brought in alive? Would you still have "cringed" if they were celebrating if bin laden were brought in alive? Should we have an army? should we have weapons? if tomorrow the president announced that we would not have any type of miliary would you "cringed" then? When our troops come home after a campaign should we honor them? cuz honey I can tell ya when they are at war with others they are not over there baking cookies honey. And finally should we celebrate Memorial Day or Veterans Day? I don't think it's a celebration of death but a celebration of victory.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:46 am |
  5. Carl LaFong

    He probably would have cried in April 1945 when Hitler shot himself.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:52 am |
  6. Richard Head

    The Author of this article sux my head !!!!

    May 4, 2011 at 9:52 am |
    • Jess Dee

      You are a GD idiot.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • Victor Castillo

      He sux mine too with a little salt and lime.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:22 am |
    • Realist

      Bwahahahaha! Nice one!

      May 4, 2011 at 11:08 am |
  7. Khaled Anntar

    This is the best article I have read so far about the reactions to the Bin Laden's death. True indieed, very true, someone's death should lead us to reflection and not celebration no matter how terrible and how hated that person was. It lead us to reflection that our life will be ending sooner or later and this brings us to the reality of what we are doing with our life.

    I still believe killing Bin Laden was a very stupid and short-sighted decision. Killing Bin Laden has short-term benefits, most of them political and to satisfy the revenge nature inside every human being. In the long-run, killing Bin Laden has played no part in descalating the tensions between the US Government and "Islamists" who the US as waging war against Islam. On contrary , killing Bin Ladehas become a ralllying and catayst point for "Islamists". The war will indeed continue. AlQaeda has won the battle of Sep 11 and the US has the battle of killing Bin Laden. There will be more battles and more blood shedding of innocents. Billions of have been spent and more of these billions will be spents to fight and kill "Ghosts".

    I would say stop celebrating death, stop celebrating violence because hatred eats into the human soul and mind. It behooves the US to contain Al-Qaeda ideology than to launch costly physical attacts that do nothing but fuel the fire....Whoever thinks US is much safer now is no more a dreamer. The reality is the killing of Bin Laden and celebrations on the American streets, have proved to "Islamists" one more time that the US is their "worst" enemies and they will have to continue their "Jihad" until US economy dry out and the US government has either to spend on fighting "Ghosts' or feeding its citizens.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  8. David

    The author represents the why America lost it's way. He equates the muslims celebrating the death of 3000 innocent people with the people who celebrated the death of the person who planned it. The celebrating muslims after 9/11 were celebrating evil. The celebrating Americans were celebrating the death of evil. For the author there is no good or evil or right or wrong, just shades of grey. He calls all celebrating Americans drunken, mindless and vulgar. Prothero represents the tolerance of evil. I'm sure he doesn't even recognize his own sickness.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  9. Isobel

    Great article, celebrating death in that way was very uncomfortable viewing. We now know that, contrary to earlier reports, he was unarmed and shot dead while posing no threat. A different issue. Very simplistic thinking if anyone believes the grievances that drove him to his extreme believes have gone with him. They did not form their beliefs in a vacuum.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  10. OZZY

    We as Americans have every right to celebrate in addition have the freedom to do so. We have seen endless accounts of these radical terrorist groups chanting, burning the American flag, dragging bodies through the streets, beheadings, and praising some crazy person that claim the lives through terrorism. So excuse us all to hell if a group of patriotic Americans chanted “USA!” These liberal views make me sick to my stomach-for crying out loud, just be happy we got the SOB!

    May 4, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  11. Ken

    Do not forget there were many displays of solidarity and grief in the Muslim world following 9/11. Even the people of Tehran held a candlelight vigil to express condolence for the victims. I too find rejoicing over one man's death distasteful–I'll wait for the return of our troops, and the dawn of a new day in Afghanistan, before permitting myself a "cautious celebration."

    May 4, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  12. Ron O

    I try to live my life the way Jesus did (still have a lot of work to get there). What would Jesus do? I truly believe he would not be celebrating the death of anybody, even a terrorist who doesn't believe in him and has murdered thousands of innocent people. In fact, even though most of these college kids had no true bad intentions in their celebrations, I believe this type of celebration contributes to the evil that has been dragging down our global society for many years...

    May 4, 2011 at 9:51 am |
    • Adam

      No, I think its your belief that Jesus would give this turd a pass. Put down your Bible and open your eyes. Calling these celebrations evil is no better than women in the Middle East being chastised for wanting to learn.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:35 am |
  13. Angela

    Americans celebrate the demise of a mass murderer, killer of thousands, a ring-leader of death. They celebrated the massacre of thousands of innocent victims – WE are BETTER – There is no comparison!

    May 4, 2011 at 9:50 am |
  14. James

    This article seems to try to determine which reaction is correct/appropriate. We're all different, so we all react differently. Just be tolerant of those who see things differently than you. You react your way and allow them to react theirs. And, most importantly, do it without passing judgment.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:49 am |
    • Lianne Bridges

      I am sorry you have such a low vision of what humanity can become. I do not share that, but I don't judge you or anyone for a different world view. But, I wonder how this view serves you?

      May 4, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
  15. Lianne Bridges

    Thank you for your article. It reflects my own sentiments regarding the reactions to Bin Laden's death. If we want to become an enlightened group of beings on this planet, we have to raise ourselves above the actions of those whom we see as less enlightened. And, we must learn to forgive. This does not mean condone the actions but rather to release ourselves from the continued dualistic drama of so called "good versus evil".
    "To forgive is to set a prisoner free and realize that prisoner was you." Lewis B. Smedes

    May 4, 2011 at 9:49 am |
    • James

      Who says we want to become enlightended as a group? Most people are incapable of "enlightenment". Most who feel they are "enlightened" are arrogant and quite mistaken. You set the bar beyond what we, as a race, are capable of. Feel free to set your own standards for "enlightenment", but one of those standards should be to not judge others who feel differently nor to call them "unenlightened".

      1. factually well-informed, tolerant of alternative opinions, and guided by rational thought: an enlightened administration ; enlightened self-interest

      May 4, 2011 at 9:57 am |
  16. Carl Wayne

    In my opinion this article had no merit... it did not teach anything, it was not argued well (if it is even possible to argue something like this) and all in all was a complete waste.
    "this was doing nothing to make us any more likeable", "But the key reasons for my disquiet were more psychological than strategic", "the death of another human being reminds me of my own", "But the main reason I felt uncomfortable watching the bacchanalia "???
    Seriously? You actually teach at a university?

    May 4, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  17. J in NJ

    "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?" Sorry but your analysis could not be more wrong. The people clebrating in the streets on 9/11 were vile individuals celebrating the slaughter of innocents. The people dancing in the streets, I am one of them, over the death of bin Laden are celebrating the triumph of good over evil. Nothing wrong with that.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  18. mark

    My belief is that the celebrations of his death were not entirely wrong to be held. Yes its sad that a human being lost a life but bin laden was an evil man. His sole purpose in life was to strike fear in the hearts of people causing suffering and death. Justice was brought forth and I am glad that he can no longer be involved with terrorism. This man was the cause of the decade long war over in the middle east. I think americans have numerous reasons to b happy about his death.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  19. ingrid

    Living in one of the most liberal parts of the USA and working in academia, I am surrounded by people who think like the author of this article and, admittedly, I sometimes wonder if I am the crazy one. I am very pleasantly surprised to read so many comments on here from people who see this moral equivalence rubbish for what it is. Perhaps not all is lost.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • steve

      Hopefully the one's celebrating on TV are a vocal and very-very small minority. The media coverage of the street celebrations was absurd.....but I wasn't surprised. The US Corporate Media has become an extension of the right and is aligned with mostly the Republicans these days. All the top reporters with the major news stations are rich and Republican....they are part of the vocal minority as well.

      The celebrations were way over the top. I hope we as a nation can somehow find our moral compass.....and push the Donald Trumps and Sarah Palins back to where they belong....out of the public eye and out of the media.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  20. paul

    cringe if you must it is who you are and unavoidable. Now zoom out from your upbringing, your sheltered life of quiet neighborhoods, organized schools, protected universities and predictable life routine. Look further then your four walls close group of similar friends and people with shared experiences you may begin to see the reality and harshness of life. It is ugly, it is painful, it is tragic and half a step away from the animal world. You can deny it and try to idealize away what it is behind the multiple layers of our western reality but they will not go away. That is the true reality for better or worse it just is.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:45 am |
    • Alex

      what a stupid post. the point of the article isn't to hide emotions, it's that the emotions shouldn't lead to partying. the normal emotions would be a mix of many, mostly relief, not the feeling you get when your teams wins the super bowl.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:58 am |
    • James

      What a stupid post, Alex. Trying to define a "normal" reaction is silly at best. What you're trying to do is pass off your reaction as normal and manipulate others into being the same as you. Your attempt to become a peopleherder indicates you may have a future in politics in some 3rd world country.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:29 am |
    • Alex

      James, you sound like a typical capitol hill intern who has never worked a real job in his life, but use your interest in politics to sound special. Get over yourself.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:39 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.