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. Fritz Hohenheim

    Bin Laden was a dirtbag and I felt satisfaction over his death too and I'm not ashamed of it. He got what he deserved and we have the right to be happy that he's dead, plain and simple. People like you who sit in their ivory towers and judge other people's emotion from a safe distance always remind me of eunuchs: They know exactly how it's done.

    May 4, 2011 at 4:42 am |
  2. Howard

    Thank you for your article. I have been feeling much like a "loner" in regards to this. Whilst I dont for one second condone his actions, I do feel that this entire situation is very dismal. All the life lost is terribly sad. That said, I agree with celebrating in the light of justice.

    May 4, 2011 at 4:32 am |
  3. Boonie78

    This is how I see it; Bin Laden needed to go. No doubt about it. However, like many others, I was repulsed by the midnight celebrations of his death in the streets of my country. Mistakenly, I always thought we were better than that. Well...wrong again.

    May 4, 2011 at 4:27 am |
    • Ted M

      Better than what, exactly? Your personal views that you held without any proof that they were accurate or even realistic? Those views?

      May 4, 2011 at 4:33 am |
    • RightturnClyde

      You cannot say they were celebrating death. A ten year hunt for a wanted felon was concluded in a normal manner. He was wanted dead-or-alive. That is nothing new and it is not focused on death. It is focused on apprehension. Many criminals choose not to be taken alive .. nothing new about that. Bin Laden had ten years to turn himself in to the nearest FBI office or Embassy. Instead he released TV videos of him holding an assault rifle and surround by his cohorts. He could have surrendered.

      May 4, 2011 at 4:45 am |
  4. Mike

    While I understand your point, and agree both that the celebrations might not be in our national security interest and might not be morally correct, there is a key difference between the celebrations of OBL's death and the celebrations in some countries on 9/11: those celebrating on 9/11 were celebrating the death of thousands of "innocents"–i.e. children and adults who were only going about their daily lives and presumably no more guilty than any average person. Meanwhile, those celebrating OBL's death were celebrating the death of a single mass murderer. This is a crucial distinction and is related to the distinction between terrorism and "traditional" war: it is never OK to kill nameless, random, "innocent" people (or to celebrate their death). It is, on the other hand, sometimes morally excusable to kill fellow combatants in war (and, by extension, to celebrate the death of a non-innocent, especially someone like OBL). In this case, while the images of 9/11 celebrations and the OBL death celebrations may have looked viscerally the same, they were actually nothing like each other.

    May 4, 2011 at 4:25 am |
  5. Vandelay Industries

    These were celebrations of a major victory in a long and difficult war. If we were in the streets celebrating the murder of innocent people, THEN we would be like the muslims around the world who celebrated the WTC attack. This so-called "scholar" can't recognize the difference between the two situations?

    May 4, 2011 at 4:22 am |
    • Ted M

      This article writer is clearly some sort of religious hack. His attempts at being poetic has blinded some to what he had written.
      And, yes, he must be too stupid or confused to understand the difference you mention. They love posting stupid articles here on the Belief Blog! How else are they going to get anyone to comment on them if they aren't goofy in some way?

      May 4, 2011 at 4:31 am |
    • RightturnClyde

      That is correct. You have to distinguish WHAT you are celebrating. When we celebrate the capture or death of a criminal we are celebrating the end of the threat of crime and he justice (at he hands of the state .. not of a vengeful opponent). Hence we celebrate the end of a war, or a nuclear stand off, of a terrorist felon (and his felonies). It is not celebration death, but of evil that has been eliminated. The scholar knows the difference but is creating a debate. We agree that it is appropriate to celebrate the conclusion of the manhunt and the termination of the terrorist threat.

      May 4, 2011 at 4:39 am |
  6. Will 18E

    So when WWII end all the celebrations in Time Square should not have taken place too?
    The authors judgement of others, and how they freely choose to personally feel relieved, that the leader of world terrorism, has been dispatched, is both arrogant and shows an absolute lack of basic rational human response and condition, to this type of new and event.

    May 4, 2011 at 4:19 am |
  7. JHaas

    They're probably the same people who vehemently oppose the death penalty even for the most vicious murderers and justify their position with high minded but empty rhetoric in order to hide the ugly truth: they don't nearly dislike nihilists as much as they resent America's might and despise their fellow Americans' lack of European sophistication.

    Bin Laden'is demise was a relief and it was long overdue. Finally America has reaffirmed to the world one of her core principles. I believe in peace through strength, and after years of failure and apologies for imagined wrongs, America is finally showing that her resolve never faltered regardless of who's in charge. What better way to crush the spirits of those who wanted America to be weak and subservient to other cultures' capricious standards.

    Then there is the fact that Gitmo not only remains opened, but we now know it was instrumental in leading to Bin Laden's location. No need to add salt to the wound, this one is gonna be real painful for a long long time. America 2, left/Euros 0.

    May 4, 2011 at 4:15 am |
    • Ted M

      -JHaas- I had to laugh at your characterization of "left/Euros".
      I have never, in all my years, EVER heard of anyone lamenting some fabled "European sophistication". NEVER have I heard of ANYONE with such a position.
      Maybe there might be a person or two out there with such a silly thing in their head, but your blanket statement labeling all "left" people (whatever that means to someone like you I don't know) as being so enamored of European culture is just the stupidest thing I've ever seen written in these blogs so far today.
      Congratulations on being a really messed-up person. It must suck to listen to AM radio all the time or whatever gave you such ridiculous ideas.
      Maybe you'd better wear some more foil. They might get you, you know.

      May 4, 2011 at 4:27 am |
  8. Proponent of Peace

    The celebrations of Osama bin Laden's demise are no more a "celebration of death" than the Fourth of July is a celebration of the death of British soldiers. Each July 4th, we celebrate not the former Colonists' hatred of the British but rather their ability to win their Freedom and establish a government of the People.

    The paradox of Peace is that sometimes physical force is necessary to deter violence and aggression and to deliver Justice. After 10 years, Osama's demise renewed our faith in our own ability to deliver that Justice. It is that renewed faith, along with our deep desire for Peace, that is the cause of the jubilation witnessed on Sunday night.

    May 4, 2011 at 4:15 am |
  9. Jerry

    Well said Mr. Prothero!

    May 4, 2011 at 4:00 am |
  10. salvatore

    I think the celebrations were born out of relief, national pride that our military got the bad guy, and a (false, true) sense of security. For 10 years we've been feeling helpless and afraid, and now the face of the fear is gone. Maybe the wars can be over soon. I wasn't out celebrating but I don't really appreciate the holier-than-thou philosophical shaming that's coming down the pipe at those kids in DC and NY. And speaking to the argument that it makes our nation look bad, I think all the unilateralism of the last decade is what makes our nation look bad.

    May 4, 2011 at 3:59 am |

      Ten years helpless and afraid seriously. Come on

      May 4, 2011 at 4:28 am |
  11. Anup

    Why is there a need for Americans to think they need to appear more likeable to the rest of the World? Author is being apologetic for unknown reasons. Also, the author seems to have confused human beings with monsters. Osama wasn't human, he may have looked like the rest of us but that doesn't mean he who was bent on destroying everyone around can be remotely termed human just because of his genetic composition. I won't argue about the celebrations, that's the prerogative of each individual to express his/her feeling one way or another. How can anyone pontificate about how someone else should display or not display emotion? People aren't robots.

    May 4, 2011 at 3:59 am |
    • RightturnClyde

      Only the northeast (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, R.Island, New York and New Jersey .. and the Bay Area of California) ..a small area of self-deprecation liberals .. but they have 16 senators and all of the major news and broadcasting networks .. and they think the rest of us are merely "out there"

      May 4, 2011 at 4:30 am |
    • John Doe

      I agree with you completely. Why does the author of this article sound like a spineless wussy? It sounds like he has some deep repressed emotions where he feels guilty about expressing emotions. Maybe he was scarred traumatically as a child and doesn't know how to natually express joy. The only emotion any sane person can feel from the death of Osama is happines. Is it wrong to celebrate the death of someome who murdered thousands? I think not. If he feels that Americans celebrating about Osama's death is the equavilant to muslims celebrating after 9/11 then he needs to get his teaching license revoked. Americans have a right to celebrate and be happy and proud justice was done.

      May 4, 2011 at 4:32 am |
  12. DaLe

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

    Probably no one noticed or cared, but I tried to point out months ago that humans are the same. Eg. those guys complaining about them 'evil' Muslims – basically the same as those guys complaining about them 'evil' Americans. etc. etc. blahblahblah

    May 4, 2011 at 3:58 am |
  13. RightturnClyde

    I have to agree with Stephen Prothero, (I am doing this more often these days). Death, even of a heinous felon, is no cause for party and victory dances. It is primitive (at best). I can imagine primitives doing war-dances over the death of Yellow Hair, but that would not be appropriate for a U.S. officer. I view Bin Laden as a wanted felon. In fact he has been a wanted felon since 9/11/01 when he bragged about his role in the most heinous crime we've ever witnessed - worse than Pearl Harbor. There were arrest warrants and he was a wanted man. He was killed like Bonnie & Clyde for much the same reasons (they had become so dangerous it would be insane to attempt an arrest). It is a cinch that Bin Laden was not going to stand trial like Hussein and be hanged. He no doubt decided a long time ago to go down in battle when they tried to arrest him. Just because he was not toting dies not mean he was without resources. He'd been toting in every picture (like Bonnie & Clyde) .. so he was presumed to be armed and dangerous. It is actually a typical felony arrest situation for an extreme suspect. (well .. consider the LAPD at Laural Canyon )

    May 4, 2011 at 3:58 am |
  14. Philip

    As weapons are instruments of evil,
    They are not properly a gentleman's instruments;
    Only on necessity will he resort to them.
    For peace and quiet are dearest to his heart,
    And to him even a victory is no cause for rejoicing.

    To rejoice over a victory is to rejoice over the slaughter
    of men!

    Hence a man who rejoices over the slaughter of men
    cannot expect to thrive in the world of men. –Tao Te Ching, Chapter 31.

    May 4, 2011 at 3:51 am |
  15. Patcee

    I was just astonished when I saw the jubilant crowds at the White House. It looked like the 4th and July. I've been trying to understand it, but so far I have failed. Yes, they were doing the same thing some Muslims did after 9/11 and we hated them for it. I'm sure hatred for the US was built also and more recruits will be ready to join Al Queda in its next mission. You can't fight hate with hate. It just builds more and more. I hope that one day there is a chance to change all this but I don't see that happening any time soon. Bin Laden is gone. Let's reflect a little on what is happening in the world instead of having a party for the death of a terrorist leader. We have many problems to solve. It doesn't matter if Bin Laden held a gun or a wife shielded him – He is dead. Let his death die, too.

    May 4, 2011 at 3:50 am |
    • Spence

      I didn't really agree with it either, but to compare people celebrating the death of hundreds of innocent men, women, and children to Bin Laden is offensive and ignorant. Also these people don't need any excuses to hate us...do you really believe these people were going to stop and then the few people in the U.S. that celebrated is what will cause them to continue their fight...

      May 4, 2011 at 4:44 am |
  16. Keith M

    While we may not like to admit it, death, murder, executions, assassinations, etc... are socially justified in some instances. While some, like the author of this editorial, prefer to posit some moral high-ground on the topic, the reality is that some people just should not be allowed to live. Their inhumanity and violent actions was a forfeiture of their freedom to live in an ethical and moral society. The "celebrations" of OBL's killing are a manifestation of years of repressed anger and frustration. I lost a friend on 9/11 and while I didn't celebrate OBL's demise I did wish I was still in the Marines and somehow part of this mission. Let's not pretend that OBL deserved anything else here... and any reaction, aside from pity or empathy are understandable and acceptable. Your editorial was self-serving and fell short of creating a thought provoking discourse. Now had you actually lost a loved one on 9/11 then perhaps your words would have carried some meaning. Stick to your lectures and let the rest of us reflect or celebrate in a manner that equals the loss we feel every day.

    May 4, 2011 at 3:46 am |
    • RightturnClyde

      One veteran to another .. we both know that they ones who refuse to serve and burn their draft cards and vocalize objections must always assume that someone else WILL serve and defend the country and do the dirty work since the refuse to do it. They always COUNT on an Army and a military to protect their rights. They always assume somebody else will drop the bombs, make the weapons, take the risks they refuse to take. Somebody else has to track down criminals, patrol the streets, defend the borders, protect the sea lanes, watch in the night, carry the battle IN ORDER for them to live in freedom. This is especially true for the "liberated" women who would be wearing burlap bags and being beaten with a switch in the "other" culture.

      May 4, 2011 at 4:18 am |
    • Ted M

      -RightTurnClyde- If you can't see that you are just parroting a party line without regards to truth or accuracy, then you are no better than a fool.

      May 4, 2011 at 4:54 am |
  17. James

    We're not celebrating death, we're celebrating justice and the fact that OBL can't continue to slaughter innocents. Did anyone wring their hands over the death of Hitler and the fall of Nazism? Perhaps some went over the line in a crass way, but it's a moral imperative to rejoice over justice. If we can't celebrate justice, what can we celebrate?

    May 4, 2011 at 3:45 am |
    • RightturnClyde

      I agree with this too. There was great cause for celebration that an enormous threat to global peace had been terminated. The city of Chicago was tense after Richard Speck killed seven young women .. on "pins and needles" .. and finally the murder was found and apprehended and there was great relief. He could not kill seven more women. There was also a sense of justice served when the killer was in custody and going to stand trial. But some criminals have no intention of being taken alive (Bonnie & Clyde come to mind .. and the bank robbers on Laurel Canyon Rd .. they were well armed and ready to fight until they were killed). Bin Laden gave every indication over ten years that would be the case when he faced arrest .. he had no intention of standing trial like Hussein .. every indication was a violent end .. and that is how the apprehension was made

      May 4, 2011 at 4:07 am |
  18. Scott

    BLAH BLAH BLAH....If you dont want to celebrate, don't. If you do...do. I bet your head hurts from over thinking things. I known mine done from reading this garbage.

    May 4, 2011 at 3:44 am |
  19. iRex

    I'm torn myself, I can't say I'm not happy he's dead, but his death brings more worth celebrating then the fact he is dead as well. Had he surrendered and was taken into custody, there would have been just as much jubilation, and a lot less hang wringing over it. His defeat, and a defeat for the evil he stood for is what is being celebrated as much, or even moreso then his death.

    May 4, 2011 at 3:32 am |
  20. gupsphoo

    I agree. We shouldn't have celebrated the death of our enemy, just like Muslims shouldn't have celebrated right after 9/11.

    I'm really glad that OBL was killed, but we shouldn't have celebrated.

    May 4, 2011 at 3:25 am |
    • Vandelay Industries

      Celebrating a major victory in a just war is completely different than celebrating the intentional mass murder of random innocent people. It is offensive to equate one to the other.

      May 4, 2011 at 4:26 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.