Bin Laden’s death: When bad things happen to bad people

Religious people have long struggled over the question of why bad things happen to good people. Over the last week … Continued

Religious people have long struggled over the question of why bad things happen to good people. Over the last week following the death of Osama bin Laden, there has been serious debate over a different question: how people should react when bad things happen to bad people.

The new PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll finds broad, and perhaps surprising, majority agreement among Americans that it is wrong to celebrate the death of another human being, no matter how bad that person was. Sixty-two percent of Americans agree with this sentiment, compared to 32 percent who disagree.

But it may be one thing to agree with this general principle and another to apply it to Osama bin Laden, especially since he has been the symbol of terrorism and public enemy number one for the last decade. Just how bad do Americans think bin Laden is? Americans see bin Laden as someone who exploited religion and who will be punished in hell for his sins. More than 8-in-10 (82 percent) Americans agree that bin Laden distorted the teachings of Islam to suit his own purposes, including 60 percent who completely agree. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans, with broad agreement across partisan and religious lines, agree that bin Laden will be eternally punished for his sins in hell. Notably, even nearly half (49 percent) of religiously unaffiliated Americans agree that bin Laden will be punished in hell; as an unaffiliated friend of mine put it, “I’m not sure I believe in hell, but I’ll make an exception in bin Laden’s case.”

Despite these negative views of bin Laden, most Americans agree with this general principle of non-celebration when it’s put into a religious context and specifically applied to Osama bin Laden. Sixty percent of Americans believe the Bible’s admonition not to “rejoice when your enemies fall” (Proverbs 24:17, NRSV) applies to how we should react to bin Laden’s death.

But if Americans are largely united in their opinions about appropriate reactions to bad things happening to bad people, we remain divided on a related issue of our behavior: what we think about good people doing bad things to bad people. That is, the new survey also shows that Americans aren’t all singing from the same hymnbook on the related issue of the morality and efficacy of torture of suspected terrorists. So even though there is strong agreement that respect for the humanity even of someone like bin Laden should prohibit outright celebration of his death, the legacy of bin Laden lives on in the lingering debates his violence opened up about how we deal with the humanity of suspected terrorists.


Robert P. Jones Dr. Robert P. Jones is the CEO of Public Religion Research Institute and a leading scholar and commentator on religion, values, and public life.
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