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. nazgul

    Oh, for goodness' sake! Get off your bloody high moral horse. What is justice but vengeance sanctioned by law? If someone unlawfully takes your property, he is punished by the courts by having something taken from him (either money or his time in jail). If you are religious, when the wicked perish, you should rejoice for that is proof that there is a god who judges justly! If you're agnostic or an atheist, then you should celebrate the destruction of murderers and criminals for that reiterates the fact that justice must and will prevail. Stop feeling guilty about the celebrating the death of that murderer. Go ahead and dance on his watery grave!

    May 4, 2011 at 1:27 am |
    • alanjay1

      To rebut your religious argument:

      Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. Romans 12:19

      Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud. Proverbs 16:18–19

      May 4, 2011 at 1:40 am |
    • Ted M

      -alanjay1- Then shall every evil be done to you for you will not fight evil but leave justice to your fake god when he has never done a dogdam thing to help or hinder anyone or even prove he exists.
      And leaving justice to a non-existent god means all murderers and criminals will have a field day where you and others like you are concerned.
      What? You don't want to be held accountable for your own crimes? And your fake god will magically "erase" your crimes as well? Well, well.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:18 am |
    • nazgul

      to alanjay1 – Did you forget Psalm 58:10? The godly will rejoice when they see injustice avenged. They will wash their feet in the blood of the wicked.

      May 4, 2011 at 8:36 am |
  2. SATX

    Articles like this make me remember why everyone thinks we're a soft country. How can you not be happy about his death? Now maybe I can actually spend some time with my family instead of going to foreign country every year looking for this man.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:26 am |
  3. DN3

    Oops, I should clarify something in my above post. I should not have said the Muslim world. What I meant was those in the Muslim world seen celebrating the events of 9-11.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:25 am |
  4. Joe


    May 4, 2011 at 1:25 am |
  5. cwood

    I am amazed at the lack of insight the individual who posted this comment had when he sought reflection...and, he has students...God, help us, please! How selfish to reflect on your own mortality following the death of a terrorist. An eye for an eye?...How about an eye for 6,000 of them? I am insulted at your (likely) teenage student's shallow insight, "Have we become like them?" Slap a helmet on her, put her on the front line, and have her represent her country for the next 6 months, and I am SURE her insight will gain some depth...grow a pair...

    May 4, 2011 at 1:20 am |
  6. Giveemabreak

    There are causes and various reasons to celebrate other than Osama's death. Why not celebrate that fact that justice has been served; our troops performed bravely, accomplished the mission and suffered no casualties; the economic downturn has cause great pains for many and people just need a reason to celebrate. I am no stranger to death. Having lost every catagory of relative, with the exception of a spouse, I would not personally celebrate the death of another, however, Osama has long since sold his soul to the devil and I can't say I feel compelled to condemn others for doing so.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:19 am |
  7. Infinity

    I agree. Celebrating the death of a human being makes me extremely uncomfortable...

    ...but Osama bin Laden was not human; he was a monster.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:15 am |
  8. John

    I too cringe when I see others celebrating this. It seems immature and not thoughtful. I'm glad OBL is gone and feel some resolve, but am a billion times more concerned about the bigger picture that we can't seem to get serious about fixing. That is: we are addicted to energy and wealth; burning fossil fuels is changing climate in ways we don't completely understand; we are horribly entangled in the affairs of others, deeply in debt; and are causing huge wealth disparities and resentment around the globe. Celebrating OBL's death is like being thrilled to pop a zit while you are dying from several major treatable diseases that you don't bother take care of.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:11 am |
    • alanjay1

      Well said. People celebrate because they don't want to actually THINK. Unfortunately, being thoughtful is not something most of our country stands for. Immaturity and machismo seem to be much more the norm.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:37 am |
    • Woodrow

      @John -- POP!

      May 4, 2011 at 1:41 am |
  9. captN america

    What a sissy grow a pair would ya please the sandland ebay is reD he should of had a pork enama before be shoved over were better then them......bottom line

    May 4, 2011 at 1:11 am |
    • Jane

      Are you even educated? Learn english before you attempt to make an argument on an American News website.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:28 am |
  10. Dave

    I'm not religious and I don't care what jesus would do. This man brought fear and paranoia to my country, and I'm glad he is dead. I will celebrate it as my grandfather did the death of Hitler, a man who brought terror to his generation. Certain people around the world already hate us yes, and loving our enemy will not change that. It is ignorant to think those who grew up (myself included) in a nation of terror and high security would not celebrate the death of the man who caused it. I was just starting high school when the towers fell, and watched as this nation fell to paranoia and fear. I will NOT show osama's death any respect. He deserved none in the first place. I only hope now our country can heal. Guess what the biggest part of healing is? CELEBRATION!!

    May 4, 2011 at 1:11 am |
    • MJ

      What he was saying we should do was actually not to "respect" Osama's death, as you said, but to reflect. The point of this article is that there is a mature and immature way to celebrate or be fortunate for the death of another human being, in this case an extremely evil man. These videos of celebrations go out to all other countries. How do you want our country to be viewed? Like the the celebrations from the terrorists when the twin towers went down? No. We are different. The United States of America also stands for respect and we should be setting examples as we have for decades. There is a rational and irrational way to display happiness or whatever emotion comes from this event. Nevertheless, a rational display of emotion will always portray respect, and maturity.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:25 am |
    • Dave

      You talk of this mature way to celebrate a death. What would that be? You have yet to name it. And as far as I'm concerned the world knows our dislike for osama. They expect us to celebrate. What would you expect? Us to have a moment of silence for this man? Reflection has nothing to do with this death. You reflect saliently on the death of a loved one, not a mass murdering terrorist. You celebrate the fact that he's gone. You celebrate the fact that he can't take anymore lives. And yes the point is if you give reflection to a death you respect it, that's why such a thing is saved for those you love, not those who have brought harm to thousands. He killed, maimed, and tortured people. Anything but celebration shows respect to a man that deserves none. The world does not expect us to silently reflect on this mans death, he inspired fear, and an age of repression. He was the symbol of terror in this country. Killing such a symbol is cause for celebration no matter how you look at it. It isn't just the ending of a man. It's the ending of an age for this nation. To honor an honorable enemy is one thing, but to honor one that had none is foolish.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:36 am |
    • Mike


      May 4, 2011 at 1:40 am |
  11. John Michael

    Amen. I felt the exact same way when the crowds began to form outside the White House. Obama used great restraint in his announcement. I think we should follow his lead, as much as we might be pleased deep inside over the outcome. Rejoicing over someone's death does not befit a civilized people.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:09 am |
  12. carlos

    Por que estados unidos no responde a la solicitud de extradiccion a los tribunales competentes que piden la presencia de Posada Carriles para ser juzgado por ese acto terrorista ocurrido en 1976 donde mataon a todo el equipo de escrima que regresaba a Cuba con las medallas de la victoria en ompetencias regionales,donde las medallas se fueron al fondo del mar con los pechos ensangrentados de los fallecidos en el sabotaje al avion cubano.?

    May 4, 2011 at 1:09 am |
    • Juan H

      Oye Carlos....ENGLISH!!!

      May 4, 2011 at 1:29 am |
    • zest

      Por que usted no habla ingles? Usted esta escribiendo un comentario en un lugar donde el mejor parte de las personas hablan ingles. Si usted habla ingles, nosotros podemos considerar sus opiniones...

      May 4, 2011 at 1:29 am |
  13. Roma

    On some level, I appreciate the anti-celebration sentiment going around. It takes a relatively civilized (or very bored) society to conduct this type of 'meta-analysis' or to even care to do so. But that "care" has gone too far. The urge to apologize for our happiness over the death of a mass murder is nothing more than a dangerous over-extension of political correctness that the far left carelessly waves around on their self-righteousness sword. Some in the Facebook community were afraid that our happiness would incite more hatred in terrorists, thus making us less safe. This is absurd. Surely jubilation may incite more hatred. However, one must take a minute to contemplate the nature of terrorists–individuals who spend their every waking moment planning and praying for the total genocide of hundreds of millions of innocent people, individuals that loathe our very existence so much so that they are willing to sacrifice their own life to rid the Earth of our presence. The additional annoyance engendered by our celebration is insignificant. Does anyone expect that if the country was instead somber right now terrorists would say, "I did loathe them, but given that they show some respect for murdering our leader, maybe they're not so bad"??

    Further, I was completely appalled when (as the author does) friends compared American jubilation to that of terrorist sympathizers when the towers fell. What an unthoughtful comparison: to suggest that the celebration of the death of thousands of innocent lives is in any way on par with the celebration of the death of a mass murder of innocents, is ludicrous. "Innocent" is not such a subjective term as terrorists and overly politically correct liberals will tout. As Bill Maher eloquently puts it, "do not become so tolerant that you tolerate intolerance"; do not become so open-minded that you lose grasp of "fairness", "justice" and "evil." There may be some grey areas, but these are not subjective terms.

    And finally, I agree that death is a mysterious phenomenon that engenders discomfort. Everyone deals differently. It's a selfish affront by those who wish not to celebrate to criticize those who do. Given the mystery of death, why not let all carry on and simply analyze the situation in nonjudgmental reflection? The self-righteousness of the criticizers is not only irritating, it harms those who need that joy to move on.

    The celebration that followed Osama's death was more than a "sigh of relief"–it was the joy of the yin meeting the yang, of the tangible lessening of weight on humanity's shoulders, of justice being served.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:09 am |
    • Juan H

      Very well written. I agree 100%.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:28 am |
    • Mike

      Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. For such a great posting. I appreciate how well you stated what needed to be said. You're not alone. 🙂

      May 4, 2011 at 1:37 am |
    • vasechek

      who talks about apologies? i just don't want any parallels to be drawn on any levels. this is not a fight of equals or even of those remotely resembling each other. we might as well be different species. this is an elefant being bothered by mosquitos. A particularly annoying mosquito sucks the blood of an elefant. The elefant spreads the mosquito thin with a deft flick of his trunk. yawn. more mosquitos will come. more will meet the same end. the elefant will not try to drink the mosquitoes' blood. it would be against its nature, never mind looking really gay
      no need to jump around and make yourself look silly over this.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:46 am |
    • Brandon

      Eloquent. I wish I could communicate as well as Roma, he/she puts my feelings into words perfectly.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:26 am |
    • Ted M

      I'm jelly

      May 4, 2011 at 2:37 am |
    • Roma

      Gee thanks! Btw I'm a 'she' 🙂

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

      On our planet, I was taught a valuable lesson by my father about toning down excessive jubilation and ebullience in the face of our adversaries. It was a lesson that unfortunately was first lost on me (and then my brother)

      May 8, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
  14. Softship

    Thank you for your thoughts. The celebrations certainly did not help Americans' image in the rest of the world.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:09 am |
  15. carlos

    A caso los familiares de los que murieron en el atentado del Vuelo Cu 455 de Cubana de Aviacion por el atentado planificado desde territoio de Estados Unidos no tienen derecho tambien a que se haga justicia,acaso no lloraron a sus muertos como los del 11 S. o solo la justicia es para el pueblo norteamericano como supremacia en el globo terracleo.

    May 4, 2011 at 1:05 am |
    • zest

      El muerte de bin Laden es un causa de celebracion, y no quiero discutir las acciones de los Estados Unidos en 1976. Bin Laden por sus acciones de terror era bajo de un animal y es bueno que nuestos SEALs se maten. Es una victoria pequena en la guerra contra terror, sin embargo es una victoria moral para los Estados Unidos y un razon para celebrar.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:20 am |
  16. Rob Active Duty

    One point missed after skimming most responses: College students today were nine or ten years old (+or-) when 9/11 happened. For a decade, OBL was their Leonid Brezhnev; the boogey man; the bearded apocalypse. Reagan chased away my nuclear winter-imposing Russian nemesis. But it took far longer for US leaders to help us out of this psychological mess. The young adults that partied after OBL's death were handicapped by the scourge of their youth. For them, the Wicked Witch surely died moments ago. The monster in the closet (of their youth) was outed.
    I know there were some partiers that were less sensitive (O–sama, hey hey hey, good bye); but in the end, I think a great distinction needs to be drawn from (university?) demonstrations in Middle East countries where the US flag and presidential effigies were burned versus what happened here, where (by and large) we just sang "God Bless America" on campus and in ball parks.
    It is not lost on me the irony that our campuses now look (at a casual glance) like theirs did ten years ago. But here there is not flag or effigy burning; I have to assume that the smarter folks in the Middle East who have been equally hurt by al Qaeda are more discerning than our media.
    Best for the future, Bob Hope

    May 4, 2011 at 1:05 am |
  17. Military Colleges Celebrated

    You think it's bad that everyday Americans celebrated? Our future Officers and leaders at the military college Norwich University pretty much rioted in celebration. Granted they 'cleaned up their mess' I guess that just made it that more acceptable. Shame on you Norwich.. what a sham of a school.


    May 4, 2011 at 1:03 am |
    • zest

      Why shouldn't they celebrate? They grew up with UBL as the ultimate enemy of America and all our values, and to see a group of elite military SEALs destroy UBL is a victory well worth celebrating.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:25 am |
    • Woodrow

      Good for them!

      May 4, 2011 at 1:38 am |

    really , how many Jews wanted to throw a party over Hitlers Death ?................a LOT ! how many thousands of families and friends from the deaths over September 11 2001 and subsequent wars , of American Lives have been lost .... we stop TYRANNY PERIOD !!!!!!!!!!!! SINCE THE FIRST WORLD WAR .....!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ok f-ed up polotics have played fowl ....but name one FREE COUNTRY !

    May 4, 2011 at 1:01 am |
  19. carlos

    Indudablemente el acontecimiento es un exito de la justicia para aquellos que murieron en aquellos atentados donde condenamos la practica quell levo a est actos incluyendo los atentandos en Madrid,y Londres,lo que no aceptamos es que hayan tenido que violar el espacio aereo de una nacion independiente para hacer esto,sin consultar con ese gobierno o solo informar por canales diplomaticos ultra secretos.Ahora entonces porque si estados unidos moviliza sus tropas para traer supuestamente justicia a su pueblo PORQUE POR LAS CALLES DE MIAMI TRANSITA POSADA CARRILES quien planeo y ordeno derribar el vuelo CU 455 de CUBANA DE AVIACION EL 1976 es que para los norteamericanos hay terroriastas BUENOS Y TERRORISTA MALOS...?

    May 4, 2011 at 1:01 am |
    • Babblefish

      Summary – Carlos is calling all of us terrorists and is calling for us to have the same thing happen to us as happened to Bin Laden.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:37 am |
  20. malcolm

    well spoken, i also felt very uneasy watching the celebrations...

    May 4, 2011 at 1:00 am |
    • SecrtSqurl

      Your class may have been 50/50, but the make up your class is probably not a very good sample.

      May 4, 2011 at 1:29 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.