One Mormon’s reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden

Even my post title is loaded.

By referring to the situation as “the death of,” I cast a judgment. I didn’t call it “the murder of” or the “slaughter of” or the “unfortunate demise of.” (I made the mistake last night of clicking a link containing an image of his body on a foreign website. What word to use?) I had to call it something, just to get my thoughts out. Blog posts have titles and “death” is the word I went with. I guess its ambivalence reflects my feelings right now.

I suppose the reason is because I have a hard time emotionally not feeling a sense of peace and justice when I realize what a remarkable thing the group of Navy SEALs did yesterday, the fruits of a long search. I watched the news last night and saw people in New York celebrating. Some of them were families of victims who died on 9/11. They seemed relieved, subdued. The crowds more boisterous. That’s when I became a little unsettled. I know people burned American flags overseas after 9/11, but when CNN showed crowds outside the White House and I could hear them singing “Na na na na…Hey, Hey, Goodbye!” I got a little bit of a sick feeling. I heard chants of “USA! USA!” It felt almost sports event-like. (The chanting I heard at an actual sports event probably fed into that perception, but I didn’t see the Philly reaction until a bit later.) I felt weird. Indulge my hand-wringing because there’s ringing in my ears. 


President Spencer W. Kimball’s classic “The False Gods We Worship” came to mind. I wasn’t even around when he delivered it, but it still strikes me as remarkably significant having come across the pulpit at General Conference in 1976:

We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become antienemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching:

“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:44–45).


Like I said, when I heard bin Laden was dead I felt a strange and good sense of relief. But I also started to think about some of the reasons bin Laden was able to convince people to do what they did. I started to think about how we used what he did to do some things we really shouldn’t be proud of doing. I started to think about what our reaction to the attacks has cost us in money, but more-so in lives and even in quality of living.


“Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad” (John 11:47-52).


At the same time, I have friends in the military who I want to honor for their service. I want solace to come to the people who lost loved ones in the war, American and non-American. To the ghosts of the slain too. I just have the feeling that we share some of the collective blame due to various contestable foreign policy decisions. It’s hard to talk about because it might make me seem unpatriotic, it also carries the scent of satisfied privilege, I am reaping some benefits even accidentally due to a few outcomes of our war in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, wars that were fought even before I was born. Wars then and now that don’t put physical blood on my hands but might on my soul.

One particular Facebook status update stuck out to me above all as I heard the chanting, flag-waving crowds:

‎”Tonight is a time of sober reflection, not bacchanalian celebration.”

Things didn’t have to be this way. I feel really conflicted. Please don’t flame me for these thoughts, I’m not trying to cast self-righteous judgment on the people who are celebrating so boisterously, I’m just trying to tell you how I feel about it. I’m not ready to call such reactions immoral or to sit on my high throne and look down on these folks. I’m only trying to express how I feel about it, what my reaction is.


“For behold, the same that judgeth rashly shall be judged rashly again; for according to his works shall his wages be; therefore, he that smiteth shall be smitten again, of the Lord” (Mormon 8:19).


I think about the costs. And I’m happy for those who have an added measure of peace today. What do you say to someone who’s felt a gaping hole in their life for ten years as the result of an act of terrorism? Some of the people with holes reacted by singing last night. Ten years ago some people overseas reacted by burning American flags, they had holes too, some of them, that we haven’t heard about, which might explain our inability to comprehend why they danced in the street by firelight. A lady interviewed on CNN last night at Ground Zero talked about how she never felt like she could really move on with her life after the loss of her husband, then when she heard about the death of bin Laden a weight was lifted from her shoulders, she feels like she can take a new step in life, she felt catharsis. Resolution. It came at the price of more death. But how do you condemn such an honest and raw reaction? Should you? What do you say to the soldier who left her family, the soldier who didn’t see his wife or kids for months at a time, who felt their heart beating as they heard explosions in the distance? Thanks? For so many reasons it feels inadequate. For some reasons it feels right, for a few reasons it feels wrong. Of course, there’s also the matter of the ideological core of the problem being more bullet-proof, being less susceptible to burial at sea.

I feel to pray for the end of war. I don’t feel heard.


A little while after 9/11 a country musician put a song together that said “And you’ll be sorry that you messed with The U.S. of A./ ‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass/It’s the American way!” Another musician called David Bazan put together a song a little while after 9/11 called “Backwoods Nation” (caution: it contains an “F” bomb in a derogatory slur). It’s a dark but tongue-in-cheek expression of that sort of boorish anti-Islamic or anti-Arab sentiment. I hesitate to post it, and I want to point out that the song is not intended by me as an indictment against those who volunteer in the armed forces generally, it’s not intended to say that all Americans felt this way either. It is rather an indictment of a certain ethnocentric attitude that has the potential to creep into all of us, especially during times of war and especially when we see innocent lives of fellow Americans destroyed. It is a graphic song, and it points to some of the problems we have at home even while we seek to change the world abroad.

Calling all rednecks/to put down their sluggers/and turn their attention/from beating the buggers/to pick up machine guns/and kill ************/backwoods nation/Calling all doctors/of spin and the smokescreen/to whip the new hatriots/into a frenzy/of ‘good versus evil’/ignoring the history/of the backwoods nation/and Ain’t it a shame/when due process/stands in the way/of swift justice/Calling all fratboys/to trade in their hazing/their keggers and cocaine/and casual date-raping/for cabinet appointments/and rose garden tapings/backwoods nation


A friend of mine emailed a quote from Elder Marion D. Hanks. I was too young to notice it at the time (1992) if I was watching the Conference session. The quote means something much more to me now that it simply couldn’t have meant at the time—or I should just say the quote means to me now:

Jewish tradition helps us further appreciate the nature of our Heavenly Father in the tender practice of the Half Hallels offered at Passover in celebration of the historic exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt and their passing through the Red Sea. When they reached the sea, the pursuing Egyptian armies overtook them. Through Moses, God divided the waters, “And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground.” (Ex. 14:22.) The Egyptians went in after them. Then Moses stretched his hand again over the sea, and the waters returned. The Israelites were safe, and the Egyptian armies were drowning. Triumphantly the people began to sing hymns of praise to the Lord. But the Almighty stopped them and said, “How can you sing hymns of praise and jubilation when so many of my children are drowning in the sea?”

In remembrance of that event, Jewish people during the latter period of Passover include abridged or shortened psalms of praise, Half Hallels, as part of the celebration.

(Marion D. Hanks, “A Loving, Communicating God,” October 1992 General Conference.)


I still don’t know if I’m an outright pacifist or if I can construct a sound theory of moral warfare. I’m going to take a close look at the proceedings of a recent conference held at Claremont, “War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives.” I feel to congratulate the brave soldiers who succeeded in their mission, to express gratitude for the difficult decision faced by President Obama. I also feel to hope for better decisions by the US abroad, a decrease in military budgets, more efforts toward peace on earth, good will to all. It will probably take me a long time to find a consistent position on matters of war and peace—hell, I probably never will. Right now, though, in the present, I just feel a bit like smiling and crying at the same time.

I’m sorry I’m happy. I’m happy I’m sorry. I’m sorry and I’m happy.

Forgive me.

39 Replies to “One Mormon’s reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden”

  1. Watching the chanting, gloating crowds on TV last night gave me a flashback to being in a movie theater in 1984 watching “Red Dawn” and listening to the people around me whooping and hollering with glee as the Wolverines wipe out invaders in increasingly horrible and graphic ways. The movie, obviously, was fiction; it wasn’t catharsis for any loss, it didn’t reflect the righting of a wrong or any moral justice, but the cheering and celebrating was real. It bothered me then, and it bothered me last night, even though last night’s crowds did have an historical reality to cite as an excuse for their revelry.

    I think relief and approval may be justified. The excessive glee cannot, IMO. Specifically, the “we did it” cheering, the taking of personal credit, the wishful identification with the servicemen who actually did the deed, reflected a bloodlust that was very disturbing.

    (This is one time when I’m grateful for the generally liberal bent of the Bloggernacle. If I said this face-to-face in any group of which I’m a part in real life, I’d be called a traitor and a coward and a terrorist-sympathizer, maybe worse. There might still be some of that in following comments, but it can be nothing to what I’d face in real life.)

  2. I appreciate the conflict you describe. I felt a lot of the same feeling and don’t exactly know how to sort them out. It’s worth a lot more thought and discussion. Thanks for getting the ball rolling.

  3. BHodges: I’m sorry I’m happy. I’m happy I’m sorry. I’m sorry and I’m happy. Forgive me.

    Your poetic conclusion nicely captures the failings of perpetual intellectual angst:

    When bad things like 9/11 happen you feel bad. When good things like finally finding and killing Bin Laden happen you feel guilty about your natural feelings of happiness so your consciously beat those happy emotions back and feel bad again.

    I’ve decided to opt out of that angst game. I am unabashedly and unreservedly happy about this American victory.

    But if it makes you feel any better — I forgive you. (grin)

  4. First, yeah, same here.

    Second, a nod to BHodges for being brave enough to leave comments open on this one.

    Third, to Ardis: You might be surprised. I just posted a Facebook status update expressing similar sentiments this morning, and it got approval not just from those i expected it from, but also from some of the more, um, flag-waving amongst my friends. (Some of what some of them said, in fact, made me rethink the way i look [down at] at their patriotism, so it turned out to be a really good thing for me, i think.)

  5. Thanks Keri.

    Ardis, like you I’m glad to have this place as an outlet for these thoughts.

    8th Grade- thanks. I’m far from done thinking about it I think. It’s funny, though, based on past experience, day-to-day life will crowd in again soon enough.

    Geoff: Thanks for the response. I’m glad you have some happiness about it, I really am. In Internet-Speak it’s hard to convey sincerity about it.

    I guess I don’t personally think of my angst as being “intellectual,” though it obviously involves thoughts I have about it. (How about that, right? Thinking about whether or not it’s intellectual!) I think there’s enough of an emotional level to it, it might even be primarily emotional, and the “intellectual” part of it is just me trying to make sense of it all. I also wouldn’t really call it a “failing” because that word carries too much finality for what I’m feeling right now and I don’t feel finished.

  6. I’m with Geoff J., in that I don’t feel any regret for feeling happy that Bin Laden is dead. The man chose to pick a fight with us, taunted us from hiding places and get us to do awful things (the war in Iraq and torture). His death will not necessarily bring about the end of those awful things, but it removes his ability to do anymore harm. I am happy about that. Goodbye dude and good luck in the afterlife.

  7. Thanks for capturing my feelings exactly. I am happy that the perpetrator of so much evil is gone, but I am very uncomfortable celebrating his death (or anyone’s death for that matter.)

  8. David B.: Second, a nod to BHodges for being brave enough to leave comments open on this one.

    We’ll see how it goes, right? 😉 And like you I also got a few unexpected responses on facebook, from many angles.

  9. You put nicely into words what I’ve been feeling. Perhaps part of the ambiguity we’re feeling has to do with the timing. If this had come even a few years after 9/11, I think I would have been more happy and “satisfied.” I think Geoff’s right that these type of events come with some natural emotions that shouldn’t be immediately discounted. But OBL’s death nearly 10 years later makes me review all the many ways our country overreacted to OBL’s terrorism—the Iraq war, torture, heightened security at all costs—and in that light, his death is hardly satisfying at all. And certainly not justice. At this point, it feels more like an afterthought, the ending of one problem after we’ve already opened a whole different can of worms.

  10. On another blog a poster added this, and I don’t intend it as a sweeping indictment, obviously there are a range of emotions and responses today:

    In addition to many horrific crimes of violence, Bin Laden is also responsible for two crimes against the American psyche:

    1) The belief that revenge is a legitimate and acceptable emotion; and

    2) The conviction that exigent circumstances can require the abandonment of principle.

    Let us hope that his death leads to a re-evaluation of these ideas.

  11. Here’s another interesting post from a woman on a friend’s facebook page:

    Something happens when you get older. You realize that there very well might be people beyond redemption and that we may be better off without them, but that their death, while necessary in the big picture of saving other lives, is still a minus to our humanity on some level. I think it is healthy to have mixed feelings about this whole situation. Our responsibility to protect is complicated. We can’t ever forget that, or slip into callous feelings of joy at the ugly truth of the death of another human being. I will not party, but I will not condemn his death, either.

  12. Another exchange I had:

    Someone said: “Having enemies is part of living in this world – a defining part. When one who actively sought the destruction of your way of life is killed, that is cause for celebration.”

    I said: I think this attitude tends to overlook any fault on the part of our own country for the actions of a madman. Truly I don’t think we can be held strictly responsible for such things. But the more we clamor in joy at the demise of the madman the less time we’ll be likely to spend reevaluating how our own actions helped cause this tragic mess we’re still in.

  13. This spring has shown that in many cases cell phones and Facebook and decent ordinary people are more powerful than dictators and armies. The number of democracies continues to climb. Hopefully this year has taught us some important lessons about change. Those lessons are much more important than today’s events.

  14. I find it sad when anyone celebrates the death of another. When Muslims in many nations danced and cheered over 9/11, it made me sad. They had forgotten how sacred life is, especially to God.

    And now, when Americans celebrate wildly over the death of Osama bin Laden, I also am saddened. We should quietly give thanks that a tyrant and terrorist voice is silenced, but still be sad that it took such actions to do it.

    I recently watched for the nth time, the movie “The Razor’s Edge”, based on the book by W. Somerset Maugham. In it, one sees young men rushing off to play war in what would become WWI. A couple weeks or perhaps a month in Germany, then go home to the family is what was expected. No one expected trench warfare, mustard gas, or massive bombardments. No one foresaw the numbers of dead, and even larger numbers of wounded and maimed. Coming home to Armistice Day was a celebration, but for most it was a celebration that the war was ended, not that the enemy was killed. Today we still celebrate the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, as a quiet hope for world peace.

    Perhaps our attitude today should be more like it was in the days following 9/11. Quiet contemplation. Prayer. Hugging our children. Hoping for real peace for all involved in the conflict.

    Nice post, Blair.

  15. Paul, there are some really interesting stories regarding social media and the death of bin Laden. Look at this one, about Twitter:

    The number one tweeted verse was Proverbs 24:17- “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.”

    Here’s an article from a guy from Abbottabad who basically live-tweeted it inadvertently:

    Internet traffic spiked and some people used it as a time to spread malware:

  16. Rameumptom: They had forgotten how sacred life is, especially to God.

    I see people say things like this a lot and it baffles me because I see no evidence to support the idea that God doesn’t want humans to die. Rather the evidence I see of deadly earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, hurricanes indicates to me that keeping humans alive is not a priority to God. (And that is not taking into account all the other causes of death like cancer, heart disease, and accidents).

    I am not saying we should be all about killing. I am just saying that saying God considers human life super sacred and that he is opposed to human death is not supported by any evidence I know of.

    Now as to preferences about how people should celebrate a victory like this… I suppose that is a matter of taste. I can certainly understand why the huge celebratory parties are viewed as tacky.

  17. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Blair. I don’t speak for the England family, but as I was reading through your post, I couldn’t help hearing Gene say Amen.

  18. My son prayed for the Bin Laden family this morning at Seminary. I’m not sure if he’s a true Christian or a smartass.

  19. My first reaction was surprise that he hadn’t been killed years before. I thought it likely that he had been vaporized in a cave in Afghanistan. My second thought was that we can now say “mission accomplished” and go home from Afghanistan.

    I don’t really have any personal feelings for or against him. I don’t like war, but I do think the war in Afghanistan was justified.

  20. Nice Post!

    Although my view on 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden greatly differs from the average American in the fact that I question everything about what happened that day, what we were told, and what truth really lies in main stream media is a giant question mark. I could easily debate many reasons the theory of this bin laden being a media tool, yet the focus on this post was on the mixed feelings.

    As a Christian I find it difficult ever to celebrate the death of a person unless it was to truly celebrate their accomplishments and positive influence in life. The fact that ABC news asked facebook fans to send in pictures of your celebration over the death of bin laden was rather curious to me. I’m sure is sent ratings up. The fact that my fellow Americans are cheering and partying over the death of a human being makes me feel as if we are in another chapter of the book of mormon. it is disgusting to me.

    Assuming everything we have been told through main stream media is true and that osama represents all evil of al quaeda, that still disturbs me that we are arrogant enough to celebrate in such a demeaning way.

    Curious the timing of this announcement.
    curious they so quickly buried the body at sea.
    curious the way the towers fell down on 9/11
    curious the fuzzy story of how bin laden was actually captured.
    curious that US spending is $1.4 trillion more than we generate in taxes and this announcement comes as a justification of our over spending.
    curious he was reported dead in 2001 and then again in 2006 also.

    My real question is are we receiving the whole story. And anyone that is a mormon and studies the book of mormon would see the clear pattern of gadianton robbers and secret combinations was the key factor in destroying every great nation of people. It does not take a rocket scientist to see corruption through corporate america and the direct relationship with goverment officials and agencies.

    There are too many flaws in the string of long term events for me.

    Yet again the main point of this post was beautifully illustrated in the sorrow it puts in my heart to see how my people have become such a ravaged society and nation.

  21. Thank you for your simplistic words, yet very powerful. I found myself in the same emotions and thoughts. I appreciate this article very much.

  22. Thank you. I am uncomfortable with all the celebration that seems to attends death, even of a perceived villain. I find that my heart and mind are filled with conflict at times like this.

  23. Of far greater concern to me was the war fever that afflicted our country and most members of my ward as we prepared to launch a preemptive attack on Iraq, a country that did nothing to us, whose leader, while horrible, was not involved in 9-11. I watched and listened in horror as anti-Iraq statements crept into our Sunday School lessons and testimony meetings. We profess to love the Book of Mormon, but I feel we know nothing about it.

  24. Wonderful post. I love that book by Marian D. Hanks and often think of the half hillels. This post really put words to my own ambivalence.

  25. This was brilliant. I’ve had to steer clear of Facebook these past two days because I’ve been unsettled by the posts left by people I normally respect and trust. I’ve felt weird reading posts that are celebratory and posts that are meant to counteract the celebrators, usually coming across as weirdly condemning or cynical.

    So I appreciate these comments, as well as the contemplations and the carefully chosen quotations you’ve included. It is sticky to ever consider any situation uncomplicated enough to warrant a full bacchanalian revelry, and it is just as short-sighted to not feel gratitude for those risking their lives and sanity to dethrone tyrannical murderers. I wish I was better at clearly defining the good from the evil, but the line is purposefully muddy and complex.

    I’m confident that this post, however, is good.

  26. Why is it that there seems to be a feeling that this only started when somebody attacked us on our soil (for a change)? Why does there never seem to be any consideration of the idea that there just might have been other things that we were involved in that happened for a long time before 9/11/01, and that the act of attacking the WTC is seen by plenty of people in this world as retribution for American foreign policy and acts that have been carried out at the behest of our government?

    To admit that there just might be something to the line of thinking that we just might bear some responsibility for that which has been done to us is apparently unthinkable.

  27. Geoff #19,

    I didn’t say God wants us to stay alive forever. I said that life is sacred to God. He commands, “thou shalt not kill”, because death is to be reserved for God and nature. If God chooses to have people die in an earthquake, that is very different than when man takes it upon himself to kill. And especially when man presumes he’s killing for God’s sake. Jesus noted that his enemies would think they did God a service by killing His apostles and servants.

    Murder is considered one of the greatest sins, because it affects a person’s life here on earth. Yet death still occurs, because it is part of the cycle, WHEN God plans it.

  28. I have thought a little bit about this since it happened and two very distinct thoughts come to mind.

    First – God in older times has commanded men to kill in order to preserve his people. In some cases I wondered if their was a little historical editing on the part of the historians of David but nonetheless it is true.

    Second – In the Book of Mormon on of the things that finally gets Mormon sick of defending his people is the way they fell into glorying over their victories and in effect modelling what the Lamanites did.

    As I watched these “celebrations” I thought a lot about how they modeled what happened in the middle east on September 11. While the death of this man is a good thing, in the long run I think the Rambo revenge mindset is a very bad, but historically common, human failing.

  29. It is interesting to see how many of the comments on this thread connect up divinely sanctioned killing to this episode. I think it highlights the problematic nature of those scriptural accounts because the justification for killing today is rooted in the precedent of divine killing, rather than any particular divine command in this particular case. It raises another set of issues related to the discussion we were having here:

  30. Jon W. (#32), among some others:

    How quickly we forget—most of the demonstrations in the Middle East in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 were in support of the United States, expressing solidarity with us and sympathy for our pain.

  31. David B (#32)
    While it may be true that most of the people in the world in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 were in support of the US, most of those people weren’t involved in demonstrations.

    It is very rare for people to demonstrate in support of something. (I’m imaging large groups of middle age busisness men taking to the streets chanting “Hell no, we won’t go, we must keep the Status Quo”) It is much more common for people to demonstrate in opposition of something or for a change.

    I recall videos of Palistinians dancing in the streets of Gaza in opposition to the US on that day. I don’t recall anyone “demonstrating” in support of the US.

  32. Then again, there were a lot of candle-light vigils both here in the US and around the world.

    (just to contradict myself)

  33. Peter W (#37):

    There is actually some question whether the Palestinian demonstrations were actually what they appeared to be. (That‘s probably the case with anything of that sort, though—rabbit hole territory.) In any event, the government of the Palestinian Authority was pretty intense in condemning the attacks, and there were also candle-light vigils in support of the US by Palestinians in East Jerusalem. There were also similar demonstrations in Bangladesh, and also in India (by Muslims and Hindus).

    However, the largest and most notable pro-US demonstrations in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks were in Iran. Yes, Iran.

    Really, though, anti-X demonstrations make better footage than pro-X ones, and post-9/11 anti-US demonstrations fit in better with many of the narratives that emerged in the months and years following that day, so that may be much of the reason for your perception.

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