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. LOLReligion

    Seriously, enjoy the victory and celebrate our military and the men and women that serve.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  2. Lana

    "It is the spontaneously emotional and cathartic reaction to revisiting the horrors of that day and starting the real process of closure that has literally been an open wound for almost a decade. That is what truly drives the so-called celebration."

    Really? When I saw the so called rallies celebrating the death of Bin Laden, I could only think back to when the bodies of 4 mutilated & tortured Americans were dragged thru the streets of Iraq to cheering crowds. I guess that was cathartic for them (Iraq). I know I was disgusted by it. Bin Laden is dead and that is a good thing. Does it warrant cheers an jubilation as if we just won a major sporting event? Not in my book. We should reflect and remember those lost and those who are fighting for our country and we shold hope that the world won't see another individual like Bin Laden in many lifetimes.

    "It is also tied into our collective decade-long and growing anxiety of national decline following so many tragedies, crises, wars and the rise of other global powers"

    You're trying to put everything in the same food group here. I can understand how a decade of anxiety is tied to Bin Laden...and the war in Afghanestan. Crisises? Rise of other global powers? If you think all those thinks are tied to Bin Laden, you give him far more world power than the rest of us...

    May 4, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  3. Tommy W.

    First of all, if the media wanted to cover anything but the 'bad apples', they certainly could have. Where were the images of people in tears who felt that justice for their lost loved ones had finally been served? Secondly, I often struggle with the notion that we (America) can/need to somehow convice the Muslim world that we are likeable or at least not as bad as they are informed.
    Unless we give up alot of our freedoms and materialisitc ways, we can expect to always be viewed as evil in the eyes of much of the Muslim world. I especially don't believe that we will could be accepted if media outlets continue to focus on the 'extreme' idiots of our country. I don't blame the media for the actions of the 'idiots' of our county...they will speak no matter what. But I do blame the media for amplifying their voice. Simply because someone is being outspoken, it does not mean that it is in the best interest of the county to broadcast it worldwide....but maybe the news media is not always worried about the 'best interest of the country, they might even say that their duty is to report the news, not look out for the best interest of the country.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  4. Jpbikerfreak

    If you cant tell the difference between celebrating us taking out osama and them celebrating 9/11 youre just an idiot

    May 4, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  5. LOLReligion

    Perhaps you cringed because you have yet to grow a pair?

    May 4, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  6. Matt

    This wasnt a man that died.

    This was evil being defeated.

    To watch Americans jumping from the towers to their own death – dressed to go to work, support their families – they werent given a choice or a chance that day. This Evil handed them their fate that day.

    And eye for an eye leaves us all blind – but also remember their side doesnt think like us. They dont want to coexist. They want to exterminate us all. So we need to take all of their eyes to keep ours.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  7. Ch33t0

    Imagine someone writing this article when Hitler killed himself. They would have been deported.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  8. Cronus

    Politcal correctness, BLAH! I along with family and friends had a drink when we heard the news.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:27 am |
  9. whatever 48

    Isn't it beautiful that we live in a country where we can ALL express our opinions without fear of retribution? Whether you celebrated, reflected, or just didn't care, thankfully we all have the freedom to express whatever emotions we felt. That's worth celebrating!

    May 4, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  10. Boonicus L

    I understand the celebration but I think its mostly just a simplistic response from people who just see it as a win and have no real connection with the loss of 9/11 (most look like college kids, which would have made them between 8 and 11 in 2001). On the other side and as stated in this article, those who suffered a direct loss are more somber as they are reminded of their loss and then take in the small amount of closure that the death of O.B.L. brings to them.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  11. Dave -Baldwin, WI

    It's not hard to find pictures of celebrations after the end of WWII. People were in the streets celebrating the fact that the enormous loss of life had come to an end. This is no different, it just happens to focus on one person instead of countries. Which, in fact, is more appropriate if you will, because we are not rallying against a 'whole' people, just one. The tragedy of 9/11 was small in comparison of the slaughter that has taken place in other conflicts, we have celebrated the end of those conflicts and in some cases created national holidays. Is it the end? Probably not, but it's a milestone worth being happy about and not feeling guilty over the the loss of one man who wouldn't hesitate to kill you or order someone to kill you just because you exsist.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  12. Jess Dee

    This is like talking to a wall. In one ear out the other. Unreal.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  13. donna laino

    I don't know if inappropriate is the word. I found the celebration of someone dying to be morbid and also we then became like those fanatic enemies of the middle east who we have seen joyously dancing in the street to celebrate death and destruction. No, I agree not only was it barbaric but it put us on the same plane as those with whom we are at war. Thank God there were no American casualties during the mission and I'm thankful that a purveyor of hate can no longer espouse his hate and violence. period.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:25 am |
  14. Andy

    Okay people.
    Let's say we had caught bin Laden alive. We would have been celebrating just as much on the streets. And lets say that after 2-3 months, he would have been executed (after all, he has a death sentence in over 20 countries). You would not have seen this type of celebration on the street for his execution. Would there still have been some callous people celebrating that? Sure. But not to the extent we had on Sunday. That shows we were not celebrating his death, but justice!!!!
    Please stop comparing our country to radical Islamists. I don't think the Taliban have a Save the Children or Habitat for Humanity foundation.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • Jonnnnn

      we didn't catch him alive though did we? Or am I mistaken?

      May 4, 2011 at 10:29 am |
  15. Rev

    The difference is that US citizens were celebrating the demise of a murderer. Those individuals that celebrated 9/11, celebrated the demise of innocent people and people unlike them. Is our jubilation rooted in closure, anger, and feelings of cosmic justice? Probably. Or is it that people don't have a whole lot to celebrate lately? Slow economy, finishing raises, rising food costs(which could be all attributed to this man's plot) : I think this was more cathartic than anything.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  16. Tom

    I am a mostly liberal individual, but articles like this do nothing to help us liberals. Sometims we forget common sense. First of all it is irresponsible to compare the celebration of the death of Bin Laden to the deaths of 911 victims. The 911 victims were innocent civilians. There is no reasonable comparison at all. I for one am not jumping up and down but I totally understand and support those who do. Its a NORMAL human emotion after the misery that Bin Laden put upon on us. I understand having discussions and disagreements but being a teacher I would think you would at least use a reasonable comparison. Its articles like this that make it hard for me to defend myself being a liberal. Lets PLEASE use some common sense.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:24 am |
    • Cronus

      Well said!

      May 4, 2011 at 10:31 am |
  17. James

    So I guess all that celebration after Hitler's death was in poor taste? Get over yourself, different people react differently to events and luckily in our country people have the right to express themselves. I might not agree with the drinking and festival type antics but different strokes for different folks. This insane need for the left to be concerned about perception and proper behavior is disgusting. If there was ever a need to voice concern is with politicians and the intentional deception they perform to the pubic each and every day.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:21 am |
  18. f

    There are so many jerks posting here and the author is biggest idiot of all. Celebrate the death oif OBL. He killed your friends, families, and neighbors. On Long Island, we are reminded every day of the damage he caused. Many streets are renamed in honor of the people who once lived on those streets that are dead because of him. My kids go to school with orphans and one-parent kids because of him. Celebrate, dance and sing the National Anthem.. This is a great day finally.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:21 am |
    • Jonnnnn

      Ok, with all due respect, would you enjoy people dancing on your grave and yelling, "Yes I'm glad you are dead, you're worthless and no one likes you"?

      May 4, 2011 at 10:26 am |
    • Jess Dee

      You want to go there "f" ???????? My brother was killed in the war. How can I celebrate when everyday I have to think about the fact he is gone because of osama. You want to talk about REAL, WELL THIS IS REAL I WAS AFFECTED, GET IT THROUGH YOUR MIND, NOT ALL OF US ARE ABLE TO SMILE AND PARTY AND HAVE A GRAND BALL OVER THE DEATH OF THIS DUDE.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:28 am |
  19. Jim Lohr

    As a gulf war vet I watched the television with tears in my eyes. I really have a hard time expaining the true reason for that emotion. The first thing that came to my mind was a tremendous feeling of national pride and unity. To me people were not simply happy over Bin Laden's death. There was more of a sense of thanks to our troops who have been in the line of fire some survive and quite often not. To the many lives lost in the Sept. 2001 attacks to the brave rescue and police who responded so valeintly entered those doomed buildings. It all cullminated in a celebration. DO NOT BE SO FOOLISH AS TO THINK IT WAS ALL ABOUT HIM BEING KILLED. It was clousure for many.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:20 am |
    • Jonnnnn

      Great and my dad was a Gulf War vet too... But he has the same feelings as me on this... Thank you for your service by the way.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:24 am |
  20. Jonnnnn

    This article says it all! I find it very inhumane to dance around and get drunk in the streets over something like this. I find it a moral struggle to try to justify doing this kind of stuff, and am surprised that people can live with doing it. If there were a rating button I'd give you 5 stars.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:19 am |
    • Lori

      The difference between Americans "celebrating" the end ofthe reign a mass murderer is quite different than the Pakastanis who danced in the streets to celebrate the deaths of INNOCENT americans that died on 9/11. The death and torture on Bin Ladens hands is whats inhumane. I raise my glass to the American soldiers who helped find and kill Osama Bin Laden.

      May 4, 2011 at 10:37 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.