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. Joe Cool 32

    I LOVE this one. The muslims and arabs are ALWAYS going to hate us. Period. Everything about America goes against their beliefs. We have freedom for (almost) everyone who is legally in our country.

    They oppress women as part of their daily lives. We, thankfully, believe that everyone should be treated with equal respect. There are plenty of examples where this does not hold true, but our overall beliefs are that there is a non-story here. Most people would wonder why this subject even comes up.

    Their stated goal is to wipe out anyone who does not belief the way they do. I believe the term is 'infidel'. We believe, somewhat, that everyone is free to practice their chosen religion. They are quite a few examples that contradict this, however, but again, the underlying principle is freedom. (How much freedom there actually is is certainly open for debate.)

    Islam's underlying principle is to force everyone to believe like they do. How much more different can two viewpoints be?

    As to the hand wringing, why shouldn't we be doing that when we take one of our enemies down? One viewpoint of one of our political parties is that we should all get along. Getting along requires that both parties are willing to try. That is certainly not the case here.

    Anyway, that's my two cents.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Joe Cool 32

      "shouldn't" should have been 'should'.

      As to the hand wringing, why shouldn't we be doing that when we take one of our enemies down?

      May 4, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
    • Jess Dee


      May 4, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  2. Charles Darwin

    "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." So basically you're saying, it's all about YOU. Nice.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:59 am |
    • Ramapethicus

      I would say it depends, if you are as evil as (Bin Laden) he was, hence, his death will like yours.

      May 5, 2011 at 2:55 am |
  3. havok

    I love the bloggers playing the "holier than thou" card through this. Get off your high horse.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  4. OakRidgeMan

    Well said, my brother.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  5. ceyan

    It is not my place to tell people how to react during times of great emotional stress or difficulty if it is within the confines of the law. I saw the impromptu rallies and "parties" as nothing more than a way to sublimate pent up anger, frustration and despair many people felt as a result of what took place on 9/11.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  6. tj

    I'm sure this won't apply to ALL those who feel that the partying was in bad taste or cras but, if you had a mother, father, sibling, spouse etc etc. blown up on 9/11, I truly believe your feelings on the issue would be completely different.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  7. Bill Jones

    Was it wrong to celibrate the death of Hitler too? I don't see any difference.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  8. Raquel

    Well said sir!

    May 4, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  9. John

    The destruction of evil is good. Victory is good. Reflection should focus on the brave warriors who took out Osama, their courage and sacrifice is humbling to the tiny number who actually care about those who defend the country. Osama is fish food. He absolutely deserved his end, no celebration, just satisfaction of justice served

    May 4, 2011 at 11:57 am |
  10. R.Harris

    I agree with many of Prothero's comments,but point out that he and his fellow academicians have likely
    never seen a dead Marine or any dead American. Americans are always held to an incredibly high stand-
    ard. While Muslims kill Christian missionaries,any American is severely criticized,even arrested,for showing any disrespect for Islam. The academics,the media,and the leftists have one primary trait in
    common:IGNORANCE of REALITY. Ironically,these groups would be the first ones executed by al Queda;
    that was the standard activity for the VC in Viet Nam. When they entered a village,they immediately
    executed the teachers,physicians,anyone with an education. R.Harris MD DePere,Wisconsin

    May 4, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  11. Christopher

    “Death and Immortality” course? youre one of those throw away college profs arnt you?

    May 4, 2011 at 11:54 am |
  12. Dana

    Most people with a sense of humanity believes that the world is a better place without a terrorist like Bin Laden. World leaders have all commented that this was a necessary step in the fight to change the mindset of future generations that feed on evil. However, we did not need to dance in the streets, singing, shouting, drinking and waiving our beloved flag to celebrate. It reminded me of those ignorant women and children who did the same after the awful attacks on 9/11. We are Americans and we are better than that.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Jessie S.

      Your idea that you are "better" than other Americans is interesting. Please elaborated, and please offer proof. We all want to be impressed!

      May 5, 2011 at 2:46 am |
  13. i agree

    great article. Quietly i celebrate a victory for peace and universal good nature. A celebration of one more small step to peace, worldwide. I didn't like the celebration, although I tried to understand it. Humanly speaking.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Jessie S.

      He found it hard to understand! 🙂 It ain't rocket science, buddy!

      May 5, 2011 at 2:42 am |
  14. Jess Dee

    Grow a pair? Terrorist lover? How old are you fcking people?

    May 4, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Jessie S.

      Old enough to know that your post didn't really SAY much, now DID it? Were you trying to make a point or something?

      May 5, 2011 at 2:41 am |
  15. Altee11

    Bin Laden was a criminal. He was not someone of any faith. He simply used religion for geographical and political expediency. Celebrating his death is ok because we were not celebrating the death of an innocent man. We can celebrate because we were not celebrating the death of a religious figure. Bin Laden was a criminal mastermind who knew how to use the dominant religion in his part of the world for evil means. If he had been born in India or Ireland, he would have used Christianity or Hinduism there to achieve his ends. He did not use religion out of goodness, rather out of evil necessity.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  16. HEC

    I do not believe that in any way, are we celebrating evilly. Justice has ABSOULUTELY been served for everyone in this amazing country but more importantly for those that innocently perished on 9/11, their family members and our OUTSTANDING military service men and women who have shed blood and on Middleastern soil. For those of you who do agree with the patriotism of this country, I hope that you are not Americans. Have any of you reflected or even considered how terrorist organizations and their members ruthlessly kill innocent victims such as women, children and the elderly based on their naive ideology? How they have beheaded, dragged, mutilated, and burned innocent Americans and others? An extremely cynical individual has been removed from earth...If you ask me, that is a justifiable cause for jubilation. He is no longer alive to inflect harm on the innocent, he is not missed and will not be missed. There is no shrine to commemorate his unmeaningful existence and his organization, not an army, is crippled to the point of extinction. We are not celebarting his death, rather we are celebrating the many lives that were cut short by this evil villain and his one minded followers. "God Bless America"...

    May 4, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  17. timeto wake up

    sad ..to celebrate someones death no matter how evil,makes you become as evil as the other, what about letting the person reap what they sowed no matter what you do in life you will pay the consequences good or bad ..where is the spirit of forgiveness .God is the judge there are timse where we kill othesr with are actions we will pay for that also .there are others involved in the attack who has never been brought to justice..sad day in america ..there is only injustice in this world there is no way 911 happened withsomeone on the inside helping so obvius ...where is osama i dont beleive a word of the news anymore lie lies lies...

    May 4, 2011 at 11:52 am |
  18. Well said

    People keep saying he was the master mind of 9/11. Well let's not forget he was also a leader of an organization that kidnaps innocent people for ransom or torture, is funded by illegal drug trade (providing opium for scores of people). Why can't we celebrate someone this evil not existing anymore? I guess these same bleeding hearts would have scolded the world for the death of Hitler and the celebrations that followed.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  19. brad

    This guy is ignorant and a moron..put one of your family members in the twin towers and you wouldn't celebrate the death of Bin Laden??get with the program Stephen

    May 4, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Daivd

      I agree with the writer. I am so very glad this monster is dead at the hands of one of our own but I cannot help the way I felt when I saw the impromptu American celebrations in the streets. These seemed macabre at best. There is no "high road" or etiquette concerning such matters, I think, but again, I did feel uneasy at such a celebration of death.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
    • Jessie S.

      Daivd: Please take some Pepto Bismol. It offers soothing, gentle, relief to an upset tummy. Then ask your mommy to pat you on the head and tuck you in for the might, ...away from the cold cruel upsetting world that is America.

      May 5, 2011 at 2:38 am |
  20. Dave

    Let people react the way they want to as long as they physically harm no one while doing it. I personally didn't rally when I heard the news but I did grab a beer and reflect on the events since the 1993 attempt to take the twin towers down. Do you think the radical Muslims would have any more respect for us or acceptance of the death of Osama if there were no street celebrations? What this guy should be writing about is why idiots burn cars and tires when their team wins a championship. THAT is more disturbing to me. This country is bredding morons faster than we can get rid of them.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Dave

      bredding = breeding

      May 4, 2011 at 11:59 am |
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