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. JoshMD

    Stephen Prothero's student- "It is human to hate your enemies, and to throw your hands in the air in exultation after they are killed" This is not scholarly thinking but socio-pathic thought process- thou humans do "It is human to get angry. It is human to want revenge. It is human to hate your enemies" to take this view as a normal state and to culture it is an exercise of the serial killer and psychopath.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Sam

      Stretchin' your credentials as far as humanly conceivable, huh, Mr. MD?

      "To take Kennedy's vision of a moon landing as a normal state, and to culture it, is an exercise in bipolar disorder with symptoms of schizophrenia!' you would have said at the time.

      May 5, 2011 at 3:58 am |
  2. Pat

    Human beings have cheered at executions throughout history–in the Roman Collisseum, in the squares of London, during the Inquisition in Spain, during the French Revolution, at the witch trials in New England, at lynchings in the South, etc. The question is why?

    May 4, 2011 at 1:01 pm |
  3. Cronus

    I think people who feel that if we only acted more refined that the world will like us are dilusionary. Let us be Americans. Believe me, if we sat home and did nothing, they would still resent us. People trying to push us into political correctness do not understand the real world. Notice the somberness coming from the Muslim world. They actually saw Bin Laden as a hero for killing us and that was even back in 2001 before W. Bush started any of his wars. Rejoice and be glad that Bin Laden is dead and don;t be ashamed over it. They need to understand we don't like to be tread on.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:57 pm |
  4. guerra

    What was striking to me when viewing the panoramic shots of these celebrations across America was the fact that so many of those celebrating seemed to be early 20's or younger. Most at least, seemed to be young enough that they no doubt would have been just children on 9/11. This observation caused me to wonder upon it and eventually conclude that what I think I was seeing was not so much a hoard of young people partying as though at mardi gra in celebration of the death of a mad criminal. Rather it was what I interpreted as a cathartic moment, the result of a breaking of a stress the has predominated and set the tone of their every day context for most of their lives. I'm old enough to remeber the way the world felt before 9/11 but these young people have lived more than half of their young life in this age of terror where the threat of anhilation by the hands of terrorists was something they faced every day and was the only feeling of the world they have ever really known. This jubilation is the celebrating of the relief of an angst and the man who for them came to symbolize that angst more than any other was Bin Laden. What they were celebrating was not the death of this man but the death of a major symbol this man came to embody for them.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Chris D.

      Good point.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  5. Chris D.

    I agree with Mr. Prothero, and interestingly enough, have had this conversation in the last couple of days with quite a few people who also would agree. It's not that we condem the decision to take out bin Laden – and it could easily and quite fairly be argued that the act of his killing was one of self (societal self) defense. But at the same time it obviously does not bring back the victims and the relief, or whatever you want to call it, of seeing justice done, cannot erase the sadness and despair that this man caused. I'm glad he's gone, but I'm not glad the way I'm glad when a baby is born or the sun comes out or my son graduates from college or the Red Sox win a game. I surely don't feel like it's time to party. Revenge is mine, sayeth the Lord. And if we human beings feel the need or necessity to seek revenge – or in this case more to my mind proactively eliminate a potential cause of further murder and destruction – then I, personally, feel it is with some regret for the necessity. I think the President did a remarkable and laudable job in this effort to find and take out bin Laden. But I suspect, as those in the small group watching the killing happen, they all understood the responsibility of that decision, and they all understood that as much of a necessity as it was, it was not a joyful business. If you have to or want to celebrate, go ahead. I just wish at the same time you'd see that underneath it all, any decision to kill made by any person, can be argued and justified, and every time we (anyone) makes that decision, it takes us a little further from God.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:53 pm |
  6. Juben

    I did not celebrate his death nor do i call this justice. Growing up in military family and being old enough to talk to and understand those who have seen 150,000+ civilians go in a matter of a two days at the choice of one man, gives me a unique perspective. Not only did this one man decide to kill entire families(Children, Women, elderly), he changed their land for the next century. If no one remembers history, look up what happened on August 6 and 9th in 1945. To those saying this one man said yes to kill over 3,000 ask yourself about one man who said yes to 150,000+ and "salting the land." One event where they said it was "justice" for what happen during the Gulf War, the other many people said it was "justice" for what happen at Pearl Harbor and ended the war for one country. The word 'justice' is often used for many acts of aggression and used to avoid the simple word 'revenge.' I never understood why people just do not say what it is, an act of revenge and this is "our celebration." While some go out in the streets and dance, some reflect on their "sense of justice," some pray, etc etc. Different strokes for different folks is the American way 🙂

    May 4, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
  7. SighForHumanity

    One of the most evil men in the history of mankind was killed. He can no longer actively plan the murders of thousands of innocent lives.

    I'm a firm believer in second chances and the ability for most humans to change for the better, but throughout history there have been individuals so evil and twisted that they are beyond reconciliation. Usama Bin Laden was one of these people, and now he is dead. If that isn't a reason to celebrate I don't know what is.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Ned

      If only everyone else could come to the same simple, yet logical conclusion that you have. People need to understand that this is a good thing.

      May 4, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  8. Batesian_Mimic

    I had the exact same reaction when I saw the crowds on Sunday night. I am not sure what I expected to happen (not that I expected Osama to be found before he died of natural causes anyway), but I was a bit shocked to see how much it reminded me of the crowds of Muslims after 9/11. The chanting may have been in a different language, but it sounded eerily similar to me. However, I can't really criticize those who participated, or who would have if they could. In a time like that, and especially when in a crowd, the emotion is often overwhelming. Herds are notoriously hard to go against, and even though my reaction from a distance was to cringe, I can't guarantee that I wouldn't have been swept up in such a powerful moment. That being said, I still don't truly understand why anyone considers it ok to celebrate the death of another human. The Pope and I disagree on a lot of things, but based on the opinion released by the vatican on monday, this is not one of them.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  9. Muhammad

    Osama bin laden is dead but Islam has come to America. NONE IS GOD EXCEPT ALLAH

    May 4, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
    • Kurt


      May 4, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • crabman

      well tell him to have a a seat we'll get to him as soon as we can

      May 4, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • crabman

      what s his name again - oh al lah

      May 4, 2011 at 1:06 pm |
    • Jess Dee

      You are cruisin for a bruisin muhammad...... Mother fck your god

      May 4, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  10. beatlejeff

    Those that don't realize that we are celebrating the defeat of evil, well, your just stupid, plain and simple. Evil was conquered, we chopped the head off the dragon, the snake is dead. Now, the warriors that did so, still paid enough respect to his body, yet a lot of the ones who want to do "infedels" harm, pay no respect whatsoever to those alive, or dead. Dragging bodies through the street is not our style. We willl still show respect to a body, but after that, let us celebrate the ending of our generations' "hitler". Think of the opposite things of death we celebrate. Wakes? Or how about one death we celebrate every year, the death of christ. Just realize its the end of one evil, evil man on this planet, celebrate!

    May 4, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  11. JS

    Its seems unlikely that, in more reflective moments, these celebrants would actually cheer the death of another human. And I wonder: Would those celebrations be any less spirited if OBL had been captured and brought to justice, instead of killed? Hard to tell, but I'd like to think that much, if not the majority, of this rejoicing is for the fact that one truly evil man - a symbol of evil, in fact - was removed from the us-vs.-them struggle. Time to get back to living and supporting life, people.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
  12. Bulloch

    I like turtles!!!

    May 4, 2011 at 12:36 pm |
    • JohnR

      Crawl back into your bog, you turtle hugger! 😀

      May 4, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  13. Ned

    It's incredibly arrogant and inhuman of you people to share such derogatory opinions on the emotional responses of other people. I was happy that Osama bin Laden, a murderer and terrorist, was killed so I celebrated. Who the hell are you to tell me that how I felt was wrong? Am I here criticizing you because you didn't respond to the news with the same elation that I did? No. If the death of arguably the most evil man in recent history didn't have the same emotional impact on you as it did for me, that's not my problem to worry about. So please, leave me, and everyone else who's reveling in this moment, alone in our time of celebration and stop passing such self-righteous judgment, you emotional terrorists.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
    • Jess Dee

      Yet you felt the need to leave your own opinion, calling the ones who didn't celebrate emotional terrorists? You sir, need to keep in mind the people not feeling the need to celebrate may have a lot of pain towards that. 3 kids I went to high school with were killed in this never-ending war, my brother included. So who the hell are YOU to say that? It brings great joy OBVIOUSLY to know that he is dead, but it also brings an overwhelming amount of sadness to those of us who did lose someone and have to remember that day. PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:52 pm |
    • Batesian_Mimic

      I think the thing that bothers me the most is that there was so much criticism of the Muslim cheering crowds (from Americans) in the wake of 9/11. We saw 9/11 as an unprovoked, unwarranted, and barbaric attack on civilians, while many Muslims saw it as a small victory against a great evil (us), and They were celebrating for the EXACT same reason that many of us were celebrating this past Sunday, because we felt that a blow had been landed against evil. This similarity is one of the reasons that I do feel justified in criticizing the situation. If we, as a nation, believe in American Exceptionalism......then we need to do things better than others. I'm not so much criticizing the reaction, which I understand is emotional, but I am criticizing the fact that those same people who were celebrating were the same people that were condemning Muslims 10 years ago for doing the same thing.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Jess Dee

      Okay, yes. 9/11. How about the past 10 years? How many soliders in your town have died? How many times did you have to stand with a crowd of people wearing black and crying while the Officers shot their guns to the sky? Death, death, death, and death. The war will never end because we will always have people like osama/hitler/hussein in the world trying to destroy it. And sadly, it destroyed a lot of lives when families get that call and you don't know what to think or where to look. It's not exactly a feeling to celebrate.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
  14. Red

    Did anyone see what people in these middle eastern countries did in the days and weeks right after 9/11? To fool yourself into thinking that humane thoughts will cure the pure hatred felt for all Americans in those countries, you are grossly mistaken. Maybe it's time that we start making it look like we aren't people to be messed with rather than walking around bombing the wrong countries with white gloves on. Our humane acts prior to 9/11 and after haven't helped anything in the way of terror attacks and plots.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
  15. elle

    Do those celebrating really think this is the end of terrorism? I used to be proud to be an American and don't like being
    represented by punks celebrating the death of the enemy. By killing one man we've obtained NOTHING!!!!!! My heart aches
    for those who lost loved ones on 911. They miss them today as much, or more, than the day the towers came down does this take away their heartache NO!! Does the "in your face" mentality of a bunch of spoiled Americans celebrating make
    America look any different than those who celebrated the deaths of those on 9/11..no. You've proven to the world that
    America has turned into a bunch of jerks.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
    • crabman

      we're jerks?? at least we don't drag bodys around the streets and tear the bodys apart all while enjoying the moment like a newyears eve party .

      May 4, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Batesian_Mimic

      RE Crabman: Comparing yourself (or ourselves) to what we consider to be unthinkable and disgusting, and then saying "at least we don't do that"......is not something I see as commendable. Hey, I may molest children, but at least I don't kill them and eat them......

      May 4, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
  16. Joseph

    After quoting the bible a couple of times, I note that no one seems to care that the ancients really enjoyed killing each other.

    1Sa 19:5 He took his life in his hands when he killed the Philistine. The LORD won a great victory for all Israel, and you saw it and were glad.

    Think of bin Laden as the Philistine.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:32 pm |
  17. bill

    I think for the most part, the rejoicing is not about killing Osama, it's about justice, it's about the good guys prevailing. We always cheer when the guy in the white hat rides off into the sunset.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  18. In agreement

    This is the reason; humans are being seen as "primitives" by extraterrestrials...

    It would have been better not to kill him but rather take him into justice ..., we can not show that we are at the same level ..., if it is true that he was disarmed and killed in front of her kids and family members...

    My prayers are with the ones that lose their family member in 9/11

    May 4, 2011 at 12:31 pm |
  19. Will

    It's astonishing whats going on in this discussion. There appears to be two very different points being argued as though they were somehow related to one another. I read the article seven times and can find nowhere a suggestion that celebrating UBL's death was equal to the celebrations in the middle east after 9/11. The author reflectively asked if these were any different. the question arises from his own reaction to what he has seen. It is possible to view the event as significant, as justice, as a necessary action in furtherance of a goal to rid the world of dangerous murderous criminals, and yet still feel that jubilation, partying, celebrating as though some end has been reached is possibly unseemly.

    Sometimes people seem to confuse facts with opinions. opinions aren't right or wrong. They are agreed with or not agreed with. It's always interesting and telling how people react to their own opinion being challenged.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • David

      "In my opinion child abuse is good thing" ... that would be WRONG, never right.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • Larry S

      Very well written and one of the best comments I have seen on article. Good work.

      May 4, 2011 at 12:55 pm |
    • Will

      "I think child abuse is a good thing" is an equally valid opinion as saying "I think child abuse is a bad thing". If you said "My opinion is that child abuse is not illegal or not a crime" that would be an opinion that is factually wrong. See the difference?

      May 4, 2011 at 1:50 pm |
    • Minos

      Thank goodness for the American split between academic pencil pushing nerds and SEAL Team Six Special Ops warriors. Thank goodness for the balance between those who would rather pray for Osama's soul vs. celebrating his demise. We're a better nation for the balance. We would be too weak to stand as a viable nation without the natural human instinct for justice and aggressive self-defense and we would be mere brutes if we didn't have morally idealistic folks among us to reflect on and strive for higher levels of compassion, empathy, and virtue.

      With that said, in this particular case the academic "philosophers" should be wise enough to hide in their Ivory Towers praying and contemplating in silence for a few days. The spontaneous U.S. public celebration of the successful American mission to take down it's number one public enemy and strike a blow to all that Osama represents is 100% justified - no less than eruptions of celebrations that occurred after EVERY hard fought battle / war in American history - often with thousands of dead on both sides of the battle lines. The celebration is one of VICTORY in a hugely important mission against an enemy determined to take everything that we hold dear as a people including our blood, treasure, and way of life. To not celebrate the success of our warriors in battle against an evil scourge that initiated an attack against us would give us reason to "cringe" - because it would demonstrate an indifference to our troops and fellow citizens who have died at the hands of this monster. The implicit comparisons to the angry middle east mobs buring American flags and praising allah for 9/11 are profoundly ignorant - especially coming from a professor who depends on our "barbaric" Osama killing ways to to preserve his own cozy life and freedom. Cringe all you want school boy - it's your right as protected by the same folks who the rest of us are celebrating and supporting without apology at this great and historic moment.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • Reality Check

      What a load of self-righeous manure Prothero is shoveling. How many people reading this believe, even for a moment, that if (God forbid) Stephen and his loved ones suffered from a brutal home invasion, that left most of them to burn in flames or jump to their deaths, that Stephen - as a survivor, would mourn the death of his families' killer at the hands of a S.W.A.T. team sniper? Would Protheros "cringe" as his neigbors gathered to celebrate the local police action that eliminated the heartless / cold blooded murderer of his family? Would he look down his nose in judgement and compare his supporters to anti-American / pro – Osama Middle Eastern mobs celebrating 9/11? Perhaps, but let's face it, it would take a pompous jerk of epic proportions to process the situation in that way– just as it does to "cringe" at those who have a heart enough to empathize with the thousands of American families who lost loved ones to Bin Laden. To celebrate the end of Osama's reign of terror is natural and humane. Stephen specically states that if he had family members affected by 9/11 he might feel different - I got news for him, his extended American family was affected. The fact that that doesn't register in his heart and mind speaks volumes about why he's cringing while others are celebrating justice and closure for their American brothers and sisters who suffered and conitinue to suffer as a result of the unspeakable evil actions of Osama Bin Laden.

      May 4, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • Sam

      Will writes: "I think child abuse is a good thing" is an equally valid opinion as saying "I think child abuse is a bad thing". If you said "My opinion is that child abuse is not illegal or not a crime" that would be an opinion that is factually wrong. See the difference?"

      Yes, Will, we see the difference. We see that, if not for the legal code, you would not be able to distinguish right from wrong.! "Both are valid opinions!" you'd say. That's liberal "Cultural relativism" for you. You're sick.

      May 5, 2011 at 4:16 am |
  20. Rickland

    The reason is 'that', not 'because'.

    May 4, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
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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.