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. Dude

    There is nothing wrong with celebrating the end of this piece of garbage. It was right to celebrate Hitlers demise and it is right to celebrate this butthead finding out that the 72 virgins club isn't as advertised.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  2. Brandon

    Dear Mr. Prothero,

    Are you related to Jane Fonda?

    May 4, 2011 at 11:18 am |
  3. yaahright

    It is possible to be glad and relieved that Bin Laden has been taken out of the picture, and at the same time not want to "whoop it up". I completely understand the author's pov.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  4. Ryan

    John, it's called a metaphor.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  5. Peter

    There is no moral dilemma imho, regarding the celebrations of Osama's death. It's simple nature. The chances of us being harmed is diminished (in the long run) thanks to his demise. Nature is all about self-preservation.People just feel relieved that the chances of them being killed by a terrorist attack is less now than before he was killed. That's all.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  6. MomOf3

    I have a question, I hope it hasn't been raised before, I haven't had time to read all 27 pages of comments...:)

    Don't most religious cultures celebrate death as a passge from this world to the next? Going on to the creator, as such...? It seems to me that peope would at least be glad that he's gone to meet his maker... (Satan?)

    May 4, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  7. alexandra

    I think people are forgetting....I Lived 9/11 as a New Yorker. Bin Laden didn't kill anyone....his followers did, we have only tipped the barrel on a huge religious war. When death knocks on all your doors, hope that people don't celebrate your death.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:16 am |
    • Chris

      Very true at least a few of us can hold onto our morals...We all know that the world is better off without him but now what about the 100 men who want to take his place....I personally thought the world was safer him alive and hiding...Or captured alive...

      May 4, 2011 at 11:21 am |
  8. Michael, Chapel Hill

    There is cause for elation and regret. I congratulate our men in uniform who died for the cause of finding Bin Laden; at last some of them did it. OBL is a criminal and God has appointed Govt to serve justice. It is done. There is a cuase to regret; a human being with much capabilitie chose to be a criminal and had to die as a criminal.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  9. JP

    When 9/11 happened, they cheered in the streets

    When the space shuttle Columbia exploded, they cheered in the streets.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  10. Tracy

    Considering what he did, I have to disagree with you and say that it's immoral to NOT celebrate bin Laden's death.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:16 am |
  11. John Smith

    I celebrate Osama bin Laden's death because I know the underlying truth behind it: Now that he is dead, he can longer murder innocent people. I am happy for that fact. There's absolutely nothing wrong in celebrating the fact that a man, who himself declared the murder of Americans to be his duty from God, is now unable to fulfill his "duty". If they had captured him alive and he was in a prison cell somewhere, I'd feel the exact same way. To say that celebrating his death isn't in America's best security interests because it could "motivate" the terrorists is ignorant. These terrorists are driven by motives much more complex than simple vengeance. What motivates them is the fact that they believe they are doing the will of God, and Americans celebrating the defeat of a mass murderer isn't going to change that. Are they going to retaliate? Obviously, but its foolish to think that they're going to be anymore determined to kill us now, than they were before.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  12. Name*sean mcdevitt

    I guess you didn't see all the other murders around the world that osama was involved in.he was no human.don't you even consider that.just be lucky this thing didn't take your life!!!!

    May 4, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  13. Chris

    Where were the celebrations when Saddam Hussein was killed? Interesting fact is he was responsible for way more kiliings than Bin Laden...But nobody even made a toast...Just shows what the average american knows and thinks....Zero compassion for anyone but themselves...

    I feel sorry for the people in Alabama totally forgotten now...

    May 4, 2011 at 11:15 am |
  14. Fink

    Fellow human being? No. Monster? Yes.

    I understand where you are coming from by not wanting to sink to their level. The difference here is that on 9/11, we saw footage of other countries cheering for thousands of lost souls, none of which any of those who were cheering could name
    personally. I was in a room with 7 people Sunday night when the news broke. In the vicinity, 3 other people were mentioning the same topic. This makes it a 4/7 ratio of people thinking
    this. Out of speculation and on a much larger scale, this would project that 4 mil/ 7 mil would have the same feeling.

    Long story, short: You're a great guy for not wanting to cheer over a "human's" death. Just be mindful when you

    May 4, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Chris

      Lets be honest nobody here can claim to know what other third world Islamic coutries were told when they celebrated....For all we know that footage could have been from anything...Or the people told that americans were killing their children...

      All Propaganda...

      May 4, 2011 at 11:17 am |
  15. AC

    I have read Mr. Prothero's books, which I thought contained many interesting and unique takes, but this article seems entirely pointless. What I would expect from a prestigious religion or philosophy professor is a meaningful analysis or synthesis of opinions on the ethicality of celebrating the death of a known mass murderer (perhaps by giving the opinions of prominent religious and secular ethicists) rather than meandering ruminations to the effect of: "ho hum, some feel comfortable celebrating, others suggest this is inappropriate." As a humanities doctoral student myself, I think it is a gross disservice to the community at large when professors fail to make any real arguments or make any attempt to use their expertise to give new perspective to the public (most are, after all, funded by the federal government).

    May 4, 2011 at 11:14 am |
    • Jessie S.

      What a shill; calling him a "prestigious religion or philosophy professor". What are you, the author in disguise? AGAIN the author proves that he is not self aware enough to know that people can see right through it (as I mentioned in an earlier post.).

      May 5, 2011 at 1:24 am |
  16. ann

    May you also remember that a lot of those college students are probably brothers or sisters or friends of people in uniform and may also be veterans of that war. Is it wrong for them to celebrate that perhaps this could the beginning of the end of losing soldiers to this heinous organization? Why does the celebration have to be directly looked at as celebrating death? This is relief that perhaps there is hope. Doesn't have to mean they are excited that someone has died.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:14 am |
  17. bob

    While I did not "celebrate" Bin Laden's death, I felt a sense of satisfaction that justice, as well as it could be, had been served. Next to that was the dissatisfaction that Osama got to live an undeserving long life before we final served him his walking papers. But, I can see how some might want to celebrate and I am no better than they are for not celebrating.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:12 am |
  18. Adam

    I felt satisfaction personally and a little bit of jealousy. As a U.S. Marine serving in the invasion of Iraq and the hunt for BinLaden through Tora Bora I wanted to be the one to catch him, if not me then at least a U.S. Marine. Lol these damn Seals get all the action. I can see your point of view and understand it, this is America after all. However, the Death of OBL sends the message to the enemy that our reach is long and we are more patient than they are vigilant.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:11 am |
  19. Charlie

    Guess you thought the Munchkins were wrong for singing "Ding Dong The Witch is Dead" after she was offed by Dorothy's house...
    There is NOTHING wrong with celebrating the death of a serial mass murderer who himself celebrated the deaths of the innocents he killed and would of continued to kill had he not been exterminated like the vermin he was..

    May 4, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  20. Josh Brooks

    It's been obvious for a long time that this is a war of duality – the split in our society and psyche. The very radical islamic fundamentalist mentality can be found right here at home...in our devout Christian, right-wing population and politics. Yes, it makes me cringe in a way too – given the fact that what we all hate of Bin Laden is right here at home, within ourselves. It's another example of how destructive it is to look and project outward, instead of reflecting and growing inward. I for one am still glad that Bin Laden is dead, but it far too soon for any celebrations. We're so far from being out of the darkness as a society/nation. God help us.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:10 am |
    • Robert

      That "radical islamic fundamentalist mentality" you saw celebrating was mainly students celebrating in the streets not the "devout Christian, right-wing population". Liberals always distort facts to fit their arguements.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:17 am |
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