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. Muneef

    Islam was ruled by many empires that might have not been that Muslim but because as an ideology to market getting all the support...but as we learnt from History that the worse one that had caused adverse effects to Islam and muslim countries become as backward and ignorant was the Ottoman empire....so then Islam was blamed for the Ottoman's Idology..and now again Islam being blamed for Ideologies invented by some to turn it from a way of living into political or criminal actions&gains.... You were in war with empires that had agenda and not ordinary living individuals who might have not even got the right Justice from their own and had run out into the free world....

    May 5, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  2. sealchan

    We are both darkness and light...celebrating his death was in the context of the ending of his power to be an agent of death to innocent victims and to the end of his twisting of a spirituality into a doctrine of evil. His death, as any of our deaths, is the Will of God. Whether he is now happy or sad (or even Is) now makes no difference. Life feeds on death, this is a universal truth. If you pick on someone stronger than you for too long you will eventually suffer a retribution. So it is always in the course of time with evil (the minority) in the face of overwhelming good. Bin Laden already lost when the Arab nation's people began to rise to fight for their rights just as so many Western nations have done many long years ago...

    May 5, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  3. Peace

    “I 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.”
    Martin Luther King Jr.

    May 5, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  4. Anonymous

    Bin Laden's death didn't matter.

    We signed away too many freedoms in the fight to get him, and compromised too many of the values that made America unique. We're no better than they are.

    May 5, 2011 at 12:12 pm |
  5. rivirivi


    May 5, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  6. student1

    I totally agree with you. Students in my seventh grade class at an American school in Hong Kong, SAR were all so happy about bin Laden's death. I automatically cringed when I saw the photos of people celebrating in front of the White House. I think that with bin Laden's death, justice was server, however a death is a death and no death should be celebrated with as much glee as the Americans have. I just hope that they won't have to learn a lesson by being bombed at by Al-Qaeda because of their lack of grace.

    May 5, 2011 at 6:48 am |
  7. Gil T

    The best medicine to undo a cringe: reflection, _ what Stephen Prothero and, at least, some students discovered. There's something more sobering than the cerebral acknowledgement we all have an appointment with death. Even more sobering is the realization that as sure as there is a God and there is a hell prepared for those who did evil, I a believer in Jesus, am no less deserving of the same damnation. It is by the grace of God that I have escaped such damnation. Those who revel in Bin Laden's death or the triumph of justice would just as soon deny, reject or suppress the real prospect of deserved damnation as accept the grace of God. The revelry, for them, of the flesh is desired much more than to do the will of God.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:48 pm |
  8. Spidey-Man

    my comment is awaiting moderation... seems the bible thumpers have a problem with me speaking my mind...

    May 4, 2011 at 11:10 pm |
    • Helpful Hints


      "my comment is awaiting moderation... seems the bible thumpers have a problem with me speaking my mind..."

      It's an automatic word filter, Spidey, check over your post for these:

      The moderators of this blog have set up a secret forbidden word filter which unfortunately not only will delete or put your comment in the dreaded "waiting for moderation" category but also will do the same to words having fragments of these words. For example, "t-it" is in the set but the filter will also pick up words like Hitt-ite, t-itle, beati-tude, practi-tioner and const-tution. Then there are words like "an-al" thereby flagging words like an-alysis and "c-um" flagging acc-umulate or doc-ument. And there is also "r-a-pe", “a-pe” and “gra-pe”, "s-ex", and "hom-ose-xual". You would think that the moderators would have corrected this by now considering the number of times this has been commented on but they have not. To be safe, I typically add hyphens in any word that said filter might judge "of-fensive".
      • More than one web address will also activate “waiting for moderation”. Make sure the web address does not have any forbidden word or fragment.
      Two of the most filtered words are those containing the fragments "t-it" and "c-um". To quickly check your comments for these fragments, click on "Edit" on the Tool Bar and then "Find" on the menu. Add a fragment (without hyphens) one at a time in the "Find" slot and the offending fragment will be highlighted in your comments before you hit the Post button. Hyphenate the fragment(s) and then hit Post. And remember more than one full web address will also gain a "Waiting for Moderation".
      And said moderators still have not solved the chronological placement of comments once the number of comments gets above about 100. They recently have taken to dividing the comments in batches of 50 or so, for some strange reason. Maybe they did this to solve the chronology problem only to make comment reviews beyond the tedious.
      “Raison's Filter Fiber© (joking about the copyright)
      1. Here's my latest list – this seems like a good spot to set this down, as nobody's posting much on this thread.....
      bad letter combinations / words to avoid if you want to post that wonderful argument:
      Many, if not most are buried within other words, but I am not shooting for the perfect list, so use your imagination and add any words I have missed as a comment (no one has done this yet)
      – I found some but forgot to write them down. (shrugs).
      c-um.........as in doc-ument, accu-mulate, etc.
      sp-ic........as in disp-icable (look out Sylvester the cat!)
      ho-mo...whether ho-mo sapiens or ho-mose-xual, etc.
      t-it.........const-itution, att-itude, ent-ities, etc.
      tw-at.....as in wristw-atch, (an unexpected one)
      va-g....as in extrava-gant, va-gina, va-grant
      ar-se....yet "ass" is not filtered!
      jacka-ss...but ass is fine lol
      p-is.....as in pi-stol, lapi-s, pi-ssed, etc.
      o ficti-tious, repeti-tion, competi-tion.
      There are more, so do not assume that this is complete.

      May 4, 2011 at 11:17 pm |
  9. Horhay

    ahPook, you stated, "It's a false equivalency. To say that celebrating the death of 3000 innocent people is 'the same' as celebrating the death of their mass murderer is a ridiculous simplification."

    The celebrations that took place after both events were predicated on hate and ignorance. I suppose many of the partygoers were celebrating his capture and supposed closure to the crimes that were commited on 9/11, not his death per se. As happy as I felt on the news of his capture and death, I did not feel the need to crack open a Bud and head to the streets. Public displays of joy over the death of another human being is barbaric and no different than watching a hanging.

    May 4, 2011 at 11:00 pm |
  10. deepwater805

    Hey Prothero! You cringed because you're a wussy. Why don't you grow some before you write a blog next time. Cry baby...

    May 4, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
  11. Keith

    Prothero, you are, and evidently will always be, a useful idiot for islam. They should have hung strips of bacon on UBL, then shot him. No paradise, no virgins, do not pass go , do not collect $200.

    May 4, 2011 at 10:25 pm |
  12. ST

    All of these debates are very similar to those that are brought up about the death penalty in the U.S. Is it right? Is it wrong? For the government to take a life for a life is a very conscious and deliberate decision with much thought, process, and judicial advice involved. What happened with Osama bin Laden is much the same except of course, on a more global and larger scale....but the same principle applies. Every country, every state has it's own views about the government 'taking of another mans soul'. There is much debate.
    I personally do not believe in the death penalty whatsoever. I also have very personal issues into why I don't but nonetheless, Is it right to celebrate taking a life? To celebrate such a negative piece of human life is mind boggling to me. Human life is instinctual, taking a humans life is not......
    I am not by any means a Taliban supporter and I do believe that what happened is horrific and we mourn everyday for the events that have happened. But to believe in hate for another human being just does not seem right to me.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
    • Keith

      Does that apply to unborn babies, too?

      May 4, 2011 at 10:29 pm |
  13. Marcelo CC

    I have lived in the US, and as much as I like a lot of things in your country, there are some elements in your culture that give an outsider the impression you do have a strange streak. No one is sad over Bin Laden´s death, anywhere in the world. But your display of hapiness does level you with people you call barbarians. Glad there are so many of you with better sense and morals.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:46 pm |
  14. Paul

    killing Osama is not the end of terrorism, it may be the beggining of a new kind of it

    May 4, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
  15. Bryan

    Ugh... the political correctness crap continues. Who cares either way? People should be much more outraged that it's damned near impossible to get a shred of truth from any of our news sources these days. These celebrations didn't even require news coverage unless they grew into riots. Party, don't party, quietly reflect, even mourn his death, it's up to you. Why should any of this concern you at all? Let them throw back a beer in celebration of whatever they want. SO sick of hearing about people being offended by everything. Time to just let some crap go for a change and get on with your life and get out of everyone else's.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • Mark T.

      Amen, brother!

      May 4, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • reddfrog

      Do what you want, but your freedom to do anything you want stops when it starts to negatively affect your country. That is why America is going down the sewer, everybody thinks and does only of what they themselves want without regards to the country as a whole.

      May 4, 2011 at 9:43 pm |
  16. M Ruzza

    What's the point of celebrating Bin Laden's death? Wlhile the world no doubt is a better place without him, his death in itself won't heal the world. Understanding, respect and an inclination to help each other will have to replace hate, mistrust and the urge to kill before we can dance in the streets. I was sickened by the sight of young people (who probably had been around elementary school age on 9/11) having the kind of good time one might expect from a successful social 'event" posting on Facebook. Or a new High Score on Angry Birds. It was too ghoulish for words.

    May 4, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
  17. Ben

    Fascinating. Looking at the U.S. as a neighbour I am troubled as to why a vast majority of Americans don't understand why their country is so negatively viewed upon. 911 was a heinous event and the U.S. has the most powerful, technologically advanced armed forces in the world. Be proud of that. But do not treat the death of OBL like winning the Superbowl, or the World Series, or the Stanley Cup. Your celebration totally contradicts your Presidents' reasoning for not making public the photos of a dead OBL. As much as many of you may not like your Presidents' accomplishments or lack there of with regards to your economy, you should know he is one of the most internationally respected Presidents you have had for some time. Time to start learning from those that are respected. From a neighbour the celebrations were disgraceful.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:52 pm |
    • VNC

      Thank you, Ben, for your view of the USA from your country. I am an American, but until Obama, I found it increasingly harder to respect my country for several reasons. I have traveled extensively and have a very good idea of how the "other world" felt about us during George Bush's reign. I am tired of being earth's "bully", "know-it-all", and, while floundering, near death, still hearing some patriots screaming "We're No. 1"! There are remarkable countries and people throughout our home, earth, and I appreciate you voicing your opinion about President Obama, and I also cringe to think of how George would have pulled out the old banner "Mission Accomplished" to wave once again....I have tremendous respect for our President refusing to allow the death photos to be released. I will not celebrate this death; I will celebrate that perhaps this world is one step closer to becoming one big village, and, as MJ told us all, "We Are The World".

      May 4, 2011 at 10:51 pm |
  18. Leigh

    The vicious attack on America made me cringe. You have your opinion.
    Thank you everyone for celebrating the merciful ending of the life of a monster. Hip hip hooray. The Monster is DEAD. Hooray.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
    • reddfrog

      Welcome to the dark side.....

      May 4, 2011 at 9:39 pm |
  19. TheRationale

    "Have we become, she and I thought, like them?"

    I have no words for you.

    May 4, 2011 at 8:09 pm |
    • ahPook

      It's a false equivalency. To say that celebrating the death of 3000 innocent people is 'the same' as celebrating the death of their mass murderer is a ridiculous simplification. You can choose an absolute argument and say that is inappropriate to celebrate the death of anyone, regardless of how despised they are. That is a valid stance. But I don't see how the two things are in any way "the same".

      May 4, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
  20. Pablo

    I wish Bin Laden were kept alive and sent to Gitmo, than make he washes his own clothes and take pictures of him and put on the internet so all the world could have a laugh.

    May 4, 2011 at 7:40 pm |
    • majortom

      im so glad this subject is being discussed,yes a time of relief and justice served,BUT,celebrating and having a party is not the response of a mature and thoughtfull mind. the response should be to reach out make peace,work and live together with the common goals of peace on earth!!

      May 4, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
    • Col.Tim

      @majortom..you maybe right but we can never have peace if people like Bin Laden lives. Thus, celebrating his peace is synonymous of celebrating peace on earth.

      This world is definitely a better place without people like Bin Laden.

      So IT'S PARTY TIME!!!!!!

      May 5, 2011 at 3:03 am |
    • Col.Tim

      I meant, celebrating his death*

      May 5, 2011 at 3:05 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.