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. Stephen, but not that Stephen

    I am glad and relieved that UBL is dancing with the virgins and we had a duty and obligation to bring him to justice, but dancing in the streets to celebrate a death to me is inappropriate. This is a continuation of the slippery slope of diminishing the human condition. Off the subject, I did read the irony from " drunken Americans chanting mindless (and often vulgar) slogans were not in American national security interests". But it's alright to do that at rallys that do not share the liberal cause-no sweat-demean the demon NEO Con?? Just saying....

    May 4, 2011 at 10:06 am |
    • Jess Dee

      I concur.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  2. Ryan

    You bet I celebrated! Better him than me!

    May 4, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  3. hhhhf

    It's a celebration of justice.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  4. Scott

    Celebration of death, or glad he died. This is where the problem lies. Having a party because he was killed may not be the best thing to do, but it is difficult to contain your glee when someone as evil as Bin Laden is killed. I didn't party or anything like that. I was glad he died though.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  5. JC

    I too felt uneasy watching the "rallies" on tv. To me, this in vindication and closure for so many americans. This event, along with the Arab rebellions, is a glimmer of hope that the evils of the world will find their justice and the world's future can be peaceful and free. That's what we should be celebrating...not the USA or patriotism specifically. I am proud of our troops and extremely proud of the forces that accomplished this raid, but their efforts are serving a much broader good.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  6. jake1969

    The biggest issue i have is comparing the celebrations in muslim countries after 9/11 (and luckily there weren't many, important to remember a lot of muslims condemned the attacks immediately) to celebrations after the killing of Bin Laden. That comparison is absurd and should never be made. 9/11 involved the slaughter of THOUSANDS OF INNOCENT people going to their daily jobs. Killing Bin Laden involved killing a man who was responsible for slaughtering thousands across the globe, from 9/11 to africa to india, etc... WAY DIFFERENT.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  7. Arlene Ours

    Hey Boston, Thanks for sending all those terrorists to New York from your wonderful city!

    May 4, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • Adam

      They were all probably wearing Red Sox hats.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  8. Canadian Man

    Bin laden's death is one step taken to get rid of terrorists in the world. it is by no mean a reason to celebrate. His life purpose was to rid the world of the American powerhouse and leverage world power by weakening the bully. Make no mistake, this is how a big part of the world see America. 3000 + civilians killed in 9/11 and houndred of soldiers since then, his death will not bring them back. This was a really enormous price to pay to get to him so what are they celebrating? Victory? Justice? Where is the justice for all those who died, what have you won? If an American embassy is bombed by Al Quaeda tomorrow and 200 Americans die, will they still be happy?

    May 4, 2011 at 10:04 am |
  9. Karl

    The key to your opinion is this" You didn't loose anyone on 9/11"

    May 4, 2011 at 10:02 am |
  10. CC George

    ‎"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that" – Martin Luther King, Jr.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:01 am |
    • Dave

      Excellent Post !! I do agree with the writer of the article. I am a conservative, retired military and religious but I do not believe in celebrating the death of any one. Our nation had a responsibility to dish out justice for 9/11 but I am not going to dance and party. It should be a time to reflect on all the lives lost.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  11. Greg

    I disagree with this article. First, if the roles were reversed and an American had done this to a muslim nation, we would have actually extradited him for prosecution, not protected him (Pakistan). If muslims would have caught someone who did this to them, and killed him, do you believe that if this person was a Christian, that they would have given him a Christian burial, with a pastor or priest presiding over it (on the carrier for usama)? I think we know the answer to that. As far as the jubilation and celebration in the streets, don't be too critical, as I see it, this is the same thing for example, as an athlete who works hard and practices hard and finally scores that goal or touchdown. There is extreme happiness, relief, and celebration that is exhibited. Celebration that all of your hard work has finally paid off. Sure we changed Iraq, and are trying to in Afghanistan, but the one person who gave the order, not just once, but many times, to attack the United States, and others around the world as well, was the "goal" that we were searching for. He was the face of 9-11. He was the founder, creator, and head of the most dangerous terrorist organization in the world today. He may not have been the one to fly the planes, plant the bombs, or pull the trigger, but he was the inspiration, and the "Godfather" who pulled the strings. So, to get him one way or another was vitally important, not only for justice, but to get the "monkey" off of our back and the back of the world. The emotions have been held inside for ten years now, and those emotions were finally let out after his death. I believe people need to ask themselves a few questions....whether liberal or conservative...pro- military action or not....celebatory or not....everyone living in harmony or not....Are these the types of people that you want as neighbors? Are these the types of people you want influencing our political system and laws? Are these the types of people that you would want your daughter to date? If not, then why are you trying to seek peace and harmony and defend people whose entire existance revolves around the promotion of Islam as the only system and way of life that matters, and which trumps everything else? Just a thought.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  12. AtlJack

    It may be a question of backbone. We all die so mourning the death of someone who will continue to kill others is not being "sensitive", its being stupid.

    Americans were celebrating many things, not the least of which are a measure of justice and just maybe, the beginning of the end of Al-Qaeda.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:01 am |
  13. Brian

    The Palestinians were celebrating innocent people being murdered in the US post 9/11. Americans were celebrating the death of the man who masterminded the murder of those people and many others, and threatened more attacks. There is no comparison between the two to suggest "we have become like them."
    If that crazy Florida pastor crashed a jet and killed many Palestinians and Americans celebrated maybe then you would have a point but right now you do not.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  14. Tyson


    I live in Boston and am well aware of the celebrations on the Common that night. I'm part of the contingent that believes celebrating a victory – and justice prevailing – in response to the most heinous attack on American soil, is completely justified. There was one man on the face of the planet who's death could spark such revelry, and Osama was that man.

    Crowds don't rush out to the streets every time a terrorist is killed. This wasn't the celebration of the death of a human being, but the end of a radical, barbaric ideology. Whether it happens tomorrow, or 5 years from now, this was the shot through the heart for al Qaeda.

    Those crowds celebrating in the streets in Boston, which were mostly made up of college age individuals, don't represent the public majority. Maybe it was the fact that the announcement was made so late at night (obviously, college students will be the vast majority of people awake at that time of day), but my guess is if the news was given in the middle of the day, you wouldn't have had the same reaction. Give college kids a reason to drink or celebrate, and they'll take that opportunity. I mean come on, they drink on Wednesdays simply because it's halfway through the week, for crying out loud.

    Most college age individuals, unless directly affected by a death of a loved one on 9/11, have a far different view of 9/11 than older folks. They were only 8, 9, 10, 11 years old when it occurred. They probably remember tidbits from that day, but weren't full able to understand what was truly going on. Of course they understand much more now, but the celebrations derive from a viewpoint more rooted in their past – this world is the only one they really know. Most college kids don't remember what the world was like pre-9/11.

    Let them celebrate. Let anyone of any age celebrate. Whether they're cheering the victory of a nation, or the death of a tyrant, let the people have their voice.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  15. citizenUSA

    We didn't "party" in the streets because a MUSLIM was killed like some of them did when AMERICANS were killed on 9/11 and in various other atrocities. Unlike some Muslims, religion and ethiniticity has nothing to do with it, (to most intelligent people). So there is no analogy to imply.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:59 am |
  16. RV1982

    Death is a part of life. I have to think that most Christians view both death and life positively...how could they not? Rejoicing in the death of an enemy that is trying to kill you (i.e., taking away God's gift of life) is not wrong, and in no way can increase risk to our warriors from those who have already vowed to kill us regardless of the cost. I view the celebrations as natural, but in no way lose site of humanity and forgiveness.

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

      True Christians never rejoice over someone's death because they've already forgiven that person. A true Christian strives to come to the image of Christ as closely as possible. Do you think Jesus would rejoice and dance around and celebrate if one of his torturers was struck by lightning? Or would he reflect and mourn for him? Jesus prayed for us as He was dying on the cross for our sins that were and will be committed. We are no one to judge. May the Lord judge Osama because I'm sure He will be just.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  17. Melanie W.

    Took my exact thoughts and feelings on this matter and perfectly wrote them down. Thank you.

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

      I felt the same way.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:09 am |
  18. Michael

    We have not become like them. We celebrate justice. The killing of an evil purson; a murderer. They celebrated the murders of 3,000 innocent people.

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

      That was the whole point of the article, you seemed to have missed it. Do we want our society to be like theirs. That is the fundamental question on the reflection over Osama Bin Ladins death and the celebrations, as Radical Muslims did on 9/11.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:04 am |
    • jason

      I completely agree. A MASS murderer brought to justice after 2 decades. The celebration might be due to the fact that another 3 thousand+ soldiers have died trying to find him and they finally did. I think the celebration is for the soldiers, not Bin Laden's death. Cause I would have much rather they caught him alive and tortured him for awhile before killing him.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:17 am |
    • Eric

      Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles
      -Proverbs 24:17 ESV

      May 4, 2011 at 10:39 am |

      NABIAN YOU ARE WRONG. thats not whats benig pointed out. whats being point out is that he is comparing america's celebration's and the middle easts 9/11 celebrations as one. when they are complete opposites. Americans celebrated the victor of America and the benefits of the death of a mass murdering terrorist while the 9/11 celebrations by middle eastern peoples were the celebrations of the mas murders of thousands of INNOCENT people. two totaly different things here

      May 4, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • MM

      Your perspective only looks at "our" way of life. "They" look at it as killing 3,000 enemies, not innocent people. No American is innocent in "their" thinking.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
  19. apurva

    I am so proud of the Navy SEALs and of Barack Obama for what they accomplished, HOWEVER I completely agree with this article. I think the celebratory nature of the patriotism displayed in front of the White House was the kind of behavior that belongs at a World Cup match, not to celebrate a situation such as this. It was a moment to be appreciative, solemnly reflect on 9/11, and at the same time be hopeful for the future... not a time to parade in the streets, chanting and screaming. On the other hand, I was moved by the candlelight vigil and singing of "God bless America" in front of Ground Zero. That, in my opinion, was entirely appropriate. The rest of the world is going to think Americans are represented by the drunken college kids celebrating this "win" as a sporting event. "Na Na Na Na, Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye"??? REALLY?

    May 4, 2011 at 9:55 am |
  20. dogs rule

    Dog Catcher: My beloved sister, you creep!! And the family will never, ever get over it.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:55 am |
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