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. Dale

    The professors words strike a cord.....after 30 years of terrorism in sri lanka news of the death of the leader saw similiar scenes ....I felt a sense of relief that finally there was light at the end of the tunnel .....a time to reflect on why protests start in the first place, why do they take a different turn, why does it escalate, how does the cause grow and why does it turn from being peaceful to violence to terrorism. we are at peace now and the benefits of peace can be seen everywhere.There are lessons to be learnt that nobody should be given absolute power. Checks and balances in any decisionmaking process will eliminate sustained abuse of the system.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:28 pm |
  2. Muneef

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    WPVS is offering a course to start (April 29, 2011 ~ August 26, 2011) Inshallah. Details are as follows:

    HP101: International and Interfaith Relations: Islamic Perspectives: 
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    May 4, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  3. Zane

    Like Stephen, I too felt uneasy as I watched the celebrations, and was reminded of a quote by Sebastian Moore, "The rejection of our common fate makes us strangers to each other. The election of this common fate, in love, reveals us as one body."

    To echo what Stephen says, perhaps this is a time of reflection rather than celebration.

    May 4, 2011 at 6:22 pm |
  4. D Quinn

    Taking the moral high ground always looks good in writing....

    May 4, 2011 at 5:36 pm |
  5. Mauro, European

    Bravo. We are supposed to be the civilized democratic side of the Globe. How can we massacre people in front of their children and even enjoy their death? Osama won, this is the proof: we all became more cruel and surely less Christian.

    May 4, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • This...

      ...is SO true. You simply cannot call yourself a Christian if you celebrate the death of another human being. Christ preached forgiveness of one's enemies above anything else. Those celebrating are proving that they have as little moral integrity as those who tried to murder them. If you want to win anything, don't lower yourself to the pettiness of your enemies.

      May 4, 2011 at 7:44 pm |
  6. way2salty

    Glenn Beck recently claimed that the biggest threat to this nation was not terrorism, but rather progressivism.

    If that is true, shouldn't these celebrations be more reserved? Shouldn't the big party be held up for the day we finally kill Keith Olbermann?

    May 4, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  7. ezgojoe

    I admit that I was disturbed to see the size of the crowd drinking and carousing over the death of Osama Bin Laden. There couldn't possibly been enough booze and joints for a group that large.

    May 4, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
  8. Renae

    I think the entire article was not about condemning those for celebrating his death. It was just his take on things. I myself am relieved he is gone because he was an evil man. People who are happy over his death, fine you can be. Thats the great thing about our country, you are free to express how you feel. If it brings closure to people, thats wonderful. But me personally, I was raised to not celebrate death. Unfortunately, he was an evil man where people feel a need to celebrate his demise & its not wrong to feel that way. It is sad that a human being had to die because of how evil a person he was. Hate does not resolve hate.

    May 4, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  9. MarkG.

    My issue is more practical than spiritual. For those that believe that Guantanamo Bay's existence is recruiting fodder for Islamic extremists, might the footage of the Americans dancing in the streets not do the same? Personally, I feel like this whole Bin Laden thing should be treated the way Barry Sanders treated a touch down. Hand the ball to the ref and walk to the sidelines. Nothing to dance about. Good job done.

    May 4, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  10. isiahoa

    Professor, while your comments are duly noted, common sense should also tell you that there is nothing the United States can do to make herself likable by "this part of the world". And as Bin Laden had previously indicated, they make no distinction between military and civilian targets. It is also quite appalling and shocking for liberal minded people like you, to ignore the fact that if Al Qaeda members came across you sir, they will have absolutely no qualms decapitated your liberal self and posting the event online. And you say the celebrations were morbid? Really?....come on!

    May 4, 2011 at 2:50 pm |
    • purs

      yes, but the question is whether you want to exist on the level of people who post decapitations online.

      when i heard about this, i felt very little besides: why are they making such a big deal about this and making him a martyr? this is exactly what people with the suicide-bombing mentality aspire toward – this is almost perverse glorification. i also thought how insulting it is to the people of my city (NYC) to call the death of one man closure or justice. it is simple-minded and naive to expect that this death will have any lasting uplifting effect beyond the first few days. then what?

      May 4, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  11. Fanfaron

    Baloney! Just another attempt to de-radicalize Islam.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  12. Rockstar27

    The author of this article can go pound sand! I will celebrate bin laden's death as long as I'm breathing. People like him don't deserve to live. I will not be somber about his demise. His death may fuel more attacks but the US has proven we will pursue justice until it is served, whether by trial or by execution. USA!

    May 4, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  13. Wayne317

    I would hate to belong to a religion that does not allowed me to be happy when I want to be.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • Rockstar27

      Amen to that!

      May 4, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  14. TD

    Yo Steve,
    There's no doubt you're a religion scholar which means you care very little for spiritual truth! Here's a little spiritual truth for you but I understand that you won't get it!
    Proverbs 11:10
    When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices; And when the wicked perish, [there is] jubilation. NKJV

    May 4, 2011 at 1:51 pm |
  15. DD

    This is the problem with these holier than thou religious followers. I, myself am Catholic, but I do not condemn individuals for the raw emotion they showed the day this news was made public. I, personally Live in NYC and didn't head down to times square or ground zero, but i do share the same feelings and emotions that the group of Americans that gathered in those places feel. It's OK to be human, it's also ok to feel elation at the news of OBL demise. It is a sense of accomplishment and also a sense of justice. I say Kudos to the Navy Seals involved and to the military.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Will

      It is also perfectly normal to be proud, happy, relieved, and yet still reflectively question if the behavior (not the feeling or the emotion) reflects the better angels of our nature. I guess I still don't understand what the argument is about.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:47 pm |
  16. Muneef

    What do others say;

    A controversial take on Osama bin Laden's death.
    From Gonzalo Lira:

    May 4, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
  17. Tom

    There's a big difference between celebrating the death of thousands of innocent men, women, and children (as we saw in many radical Islamic nations immediately following 9/11), and celebrating the death of quite possibly one of the most evil mass murders since Hitler (as we did following the death of Bin Laden). BIG difference...the two shouldn't even be compared.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:26 pm |
    • Marc

      The US government also killed countless innocent men, women, and children. So your point?

      May 4, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • judd

      Just because someone committed evil doesn't mean they were evil. Evil has no substance. Anyways, any of us who grew up in bin Laden's shoes and in his socio-political context, would have turned out the same. The author is speaking of empathy for another human being. He's looking for some reflection, questioning, if you will, the notion that there is closure after we killed one dude. that's a bandaid, we didn't solve the conflict. AND most of this celebration just reflects peoples difficulty to think rationally, and critically (things this country was founded in the name of:A nation shaped by rationality and reason).

      May 4, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
  18. James

    I think that part of the reason for the "celebration" has a lot to do with how OBL and AQ lived and operated over the past 10 years. OBL and AQ constantly taunted the US and the West about our inability locate and kill/capture OBL. Some people bought into this propoganda, and allowed themselves to be demoralized and discouraged. Subsequently, when we did finally track OBL down and kill him people celebrated. There is nothing wrong with that.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • Chris

      ”I will 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.”

      May 4, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  19. RightturnClyde

    It IS kind of hard to understand those who cannot see the celebrating as something OTHER than death (vanquishing evil). I can attest that at any fatal highway accident (or even a major accident) many passers by have a macabre interest in viewing the dead victims. People often profess one thing (the "book" ideal) and do another (their true personality). Bin Laden's death was incident to a lawful attempt to arrest a dangerous fugitive .. he was wanted (dead or alive) since 9/11/01 with warrants for his immediate arrest. He and Al Quaeda are worse than ALL of the 1930's gangsters .. very dangerous and normally heavily armed. It's a cinch he was not going to stand trial and be hung .. there could have been a big gunfight (who knows) .. the OBL Corral .. LOL.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
  20. Skylar

    For the professor to make analogous the rallying of Americans in the wake of Bin Laden's death and the celebrations in the streets of the "Muslim world" following the attacks of September 11th is to equate apples and oranges. First of all, the "Muslim world" is far too broad a term. Celebrations following September 11th were limited to areas predominantly occupied by radical Islamists. Furthermore, Americans are "celebrating" the death of a single man who represented the most evil manifestation of Terrorism directed at Americans. Only radical Islamists were celebrating the deaths of innocent Americans, who were viewed as part of a "terrorist" US government. To express relief over the death of a terorist hated by many is far different than celebrating the death of individials who, while having no association with terror, were seen by radical Muslims as parts of a "terrorist" regime.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • NewsJunkie

      The extreme religious nuts will hate us no matter what we do. I think that if you feel that you want to celebrate, go for it. It is a personal decision. Even the Munchkins sang and danced when the Wicked Witch of the West died.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:37 pm |
    • Dr. Moseley

      here, here, I concur. Well said.

      May 4, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • David

      Yeah, and I'm tired of hearing how because we're better we're supposed to take the high road and give the scuzz ball a proper burial. If you ask me, he got more than he deserved! I guess now I will have to remember to say a Eulogy whenever I take out the trash bags to the garbage can from now on.

      May 4, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
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