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. Blue Birbal

    I think if more people begin to think this way, the world would have less hatred. Retributive justice is a lower-level emotion, and we need to evolve beyond it. True, the man was indicted of crimes beyond imagination. Also true that nothing short of a Presidential Decree was signed authorizing his death. But perhaps more important was the fact that he could not be allowed to sit and thumb his nose at the rest of the civilized world about what he had accomplished.
    However, loss of life is not something to be celebrated. I look at this event as a difficult task which had to be accomplished, and was therefore brought to bear.

    May 4, 2011 at 3:22 am |
  2. Well said

    The author of this article is a coward. At least he was able to admit that 911 didn't affect him. Many couch critics who have a lot to say but say nothing.

    The death of Bin Laden is something to be celebrated. Those who were murdered in 01 would want us to celebrate our victory. IF you want to sit around and mourn your whole life even after a victory like this – that's your problem.

    And who cares what other countries think about us cheering. Let them try something. They'll end up just like Bin Laden.

    May 4, 2011 at 3:11 am |
    • steve

      Thought I was finished, that one popped up just as I was logging off...Just as Bin Laden gets too much credit for the attacks, the people that lost they're lives get lost in all of this self righteous rhetoric. I wouldn't dare to take it on myself to speak for them.
      When we as A People, can see past the blood in our eyes, inflicted after 9/11/01, and function as a country working towards our common principles again, that's when the chants should start. That guy that we killed has nothing to do with that.

      May 4, 2011 at 3:32 am |
  3. TruthDotWs

    Can you handle the truth?

    May 4, 2011 at 3:02 am |
  4. TruthDotWs

    I cringed when I read your article. We are celebrating because an evil man can kill no more. WHAT IN THE H*** IS WRONG WITH THAT?

    May 4, 2011 at 3:02 am |
  5. steve

    Just a final thought on my part. As I have felt from the hours just after 9/11/01, I just think we're giving this guy to much credit. Stop already....I am

    May 4, 2011 at 3:01 am |
  6. corkse

    "Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar..."

    ..the arguments in the article from this point on was rendered invalid.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:59 am |
  7. JKarb

    It is about a man, one man who not only murdered Americans, he also murdered muslims. Therefore it is not the death that America is celebrating, it is his SILENCE. so im sure " the muslims are also celebrating.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:57 am |
  8. sally

    I don't believe that people are disturbed by the revelry because they have any sympathy for Bin Laden. They are taken aback by the glee, the unbridled frenzy they see in the revelers. It is a very primitive jubilation which reminds many of us of such outpourings by the Muslims over 9/11 and the celebration of the killing of the Israeli Olympic athletes years ago. As for me, I am relieved Osama is gone and I firmly believe the world is better off without him. He lived by the sword and it is to be expected that he would die by it.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:51 am |
    • aaron

      also well put. thank you too.

      May 4, 2011 at 3:06 am |
  9. semaj

    I agree. It was difficult for me to embrace the same type of expression of joy as everyone around me. While I reflected on what his death meant to America and me personally, I didn't see a cause for that type of celebration per se. His death did not completely eliminate terrorism, nor will it change what has already happened. While i was reading your blog, a few things stood out to me and one in particular was how disgusted i was to see all those people in the Muslim world celebrating our tragedy. I thought, what kind of people are they, and then when i see that we behaved in a similar manner, it bothered me a little. However, i think for the most part people were celebrating a global victory that a great threat has been eliminated and feeling a sense of pride that America was the force that brought down public enemy number one. The feeling I felt was sadness again, not for Bin Laden, but what our country endured. I reflected back to 9-11 and how much i cried and hurt for what took place that day, and i hoped that his death would be able to serve as some sort of relief for all those who lost someone, survivors and Americans in general. Anderson Cooper said it best. I hope now we never have to hear of him or give him the satisfaction of consuming our thoughts or preying on our fears.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:48 am |
    • aaron

      well put. thank you.

      May 4, 2011 at 3:06 am |
  10. Kristie

    I also cringed when I saw the celebrations in the streets as did many of my friends. It appeared the people celebrating were just like our enemies who celebrated the 9/11 killings, and it wasn’t a good visual parallel. I'm not saying this because I worried about what other countries would think of such behavior. I’m saying it because I felt the moment was cheapened. I understand the happiness at knowing the hunt for Bin Laden was over, but cheering "USA" and wildly waving US flags became the equivalent of the reaction to a Superbowl touchdown or a gold medal at the Olympics. It just felt oddly inappropriate even though I did not regret the outcome that led to the celebrations.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:43 am |
    • Brandon

      It was much more significant, and much more reason to celebrate, than a gold medal or a superbowl victory. It's an extremely important psychological triumph. I see people arguing that there is no benifit to OBL's death. This is a war of ideas, and this is exactly the type of turning point America needs.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:51 am |
  11. Annie

    It's ok for you to be an apologist and pacifist and sit at home and contemplate death. But thank god our leaders aren't and are protecting the USA! And don't for one second beleive that appeasement will win the war with radical Islam – we know full well it will only get more people killed.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:40 am |
  12. rick

    look on the brightside ,theres probably a prettty good deal on a compound in pakaastan rite now, a guy on the news that kills one person you want him dead,from that one act on 9/11 think of how many on all sides has died as a result of that action,im thinking it was more like releif instead of rejoicing,americans are just sick of getttting jihaded by the rooty poot

    May 4, 2011 at 2:33 am |
  13. nameless

    I don't think celebrating the death of thousands of non-combatants (ie people celebrating 9/11 and the fall of the towers) and celebrating the singular death of a man who has committed countless atrocities and acts of war worldwide can be compared. I don't recall celebrations in the United States over the devastation in Iraq or any of the ongoing trouble in the Middle East, for instance. If that had happened, then, yeah, I'd be disturbed, too. As it is, I see no problem with feeling relief or, yes, even happiness, at the prospect that justice has been served, and a mass murderer has been removed from society.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:32 am |
  14. Rick

    To take a life, any life, even that of a non human animal can be a painful experience for many of us. I felt this when I was in the Army in the 1960s, and later as a corrections officer assigned to death row. Yet those who torture and murder others cannot be allowed to continue living and commiting these horrible acts. I do not rejoice in the killing of another, but I can understand why many are celebrating the death of Osama Bin Laden. He orchestrated and was continuing to orchestrate the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children throughout the world. He was the worst kind of thug and criminal. He does not deserve the sympathy of anyone.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:32 am |
  15. Bman1973

    Maby this guy didn't have anyone that's he were friends with jumping out of the WTC!! I feel great!!!!

    May 4, 2011 at 2:31 am |
  16. Gail


    May 4, 2011 at 2:31 am |
  17. marigold

    Well, I teach storytelling and dramatics and all I can say is that when a villain is felled, humans cheer and feel great relief–don't criticize the human response. I am sure you feel holier than the public and the commoner–and good for you I suppose–but this is normal human response as ancient as the Greeks who called it "catharsis", the great outpouring after tragedy. This is part of the great human drama so I ask you to reserve your judgement. Usually after catharsis is healing and a new chapter, a resurrection–so let it begin.

    May 4, 2011 at 2:31 am |
    • steve

      Apparently there are more than one human responses. Also, Usama Bin Laden is again the most famous person on the planet. Sadly, our sensationalist media/culture allows this.
      Now lets get back to bickering about political ideals and petty self interests so our country can continue the downward spiral that was accelerated right around 9/11/01.

      May 4, 2011 at 2:42 am |
    • steve

      Apparently there are more than one human responses. Also, Usama Bin Laden is again the most famous person on the planet. Sadly, our sensationalist media/culture allows this.
      Now lets get back to bickering about political ideals and petty self interests so our country can continue the downward spiral that was accelerated right around 9/11/01. P.s. you probly ought to get back to Fox News, I think the next news cycle just started (they just might need a story telling teacher!)

      May 4, 2011 at 2:51 am |
  18. oliver59

    they've killed a man, just ONE man, not the idea or the movement. people are dilusional, i dont see how anyone can call it a triumph or "mission accomplished". it really wont change much (except maybe Obama's ratings for a short bit) , there will be many BinLaden's after him. the true change can only come from the reforms in one's mentality and way of thinking, and as far as this "victory" goes – it has not changed anyone's mentality

    May 4, 2011 at 2:27 am |
  19. Joe Six Pack

    You sir, are a big ol' fairy. ding don bin Laden is dead, fairy!!!

    May 4, 2011 at 2:18 am |
  20. whodat33

    who was drunk???

    May 4, 2011 at 2:17 am |
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