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NEW YORK — When Hyojin Jenny Hwang wrote on Facebook that she was saddened by the sight of young Americans like herself jubilantly cheering Osama bin Laden’s death, the angry response was swift, even from friends.
“One friend told me she felt judged for feeling happy,” said the 30-year-old mother from New Jersey. “And another one simply unfriended me on Facebook.”
As the hours passed, though, and the initial giddiness settled a bit, Hwang received messages of support, too, from people similarly unnerved by the scenes of euphoria: chants of “USA! USA!” at the White House gates and ground zero; signs such as “Obama 1, Osama 0”; or T-shirts now available online, saying “GOT HIM!” and illustrated by a stick figure of a dead bin Laden.
It’s one thing to be satisfied that the world’s most wanted terrorist has been brought to justice. But where does satisfaction end and gloating begin? It’s a question being posed online by ordinary Americans, religious figures, various commentators and several 9/11 widows. And it’s bound to be on President Barack Obama’s mind as he treads that fine line in a visit Thursday to ground zero in New York.
Could Obama’s visit in itself be interpreted as gloating? The president seemed well aware of the dangers. He planned a somber and quiet visit — no speech, the White House said, just laying a wreath at the World Trade Center site and meeting privately with families and first responders.
“The president thinks it’s entirely fitting and appropriate to visit the site ... in the wake of this significant and cathartic moment for the American people,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
One of the city’s tabloids, the Daily News, had a bit of advice for the president: It urged him not to defile the site by mentioning bin Laden’s name, “the six syllables that memorialize savagery.”
It was impossible to tell whether those Americans feeling uneasy with the celebrating were in the majority or minority; the few polls conducted since the news broke haven’t asked the question. For three women who lost husbands on 9/11, the jubilant scenes that took place Sunday night were disturbing.
Kristen Breitweiser said they brought back images of bin Laden supporters celebrating in the streets on that infamous day in 2001.
“Forgive me, but I don’t want to watch uncorked champagne spill onto hallowed ground where thousands were murdered in cold blood,” she wrote Monday on the Huffington Post. “And it breaks my heart to witness young Americans cheer any death — even the death of a horrible, evil, murderous person — like it is some raucous tailgate party on a college campus. Why are we not somber?”
Another 9/11 widow, Marian Fontana, wrote on Salon of how her son, Aidan, who was 5 when his father died, had gone to school on Monday and called at lunchtime, wanting to come home.
“Everyone is talking about bin Laden. In every class, they are happy he is dead, but I don’t feel happy,” she said he told her.
And Deena Burnett Bailey, of Little Rock, Ark., who lost her husband Tom Burnett, said she was struggling with how to talk to her teens about bin Laden’s death.
“To say that I’m happy that he was killed just seems odd, and it goes against my Christian faith,” she said. “The girls and I were talking about it. ... One of them said, ‘What can we say, Mom? We can’t say praise the Lord, he’s dead.’ I said, ‘I know. You just have to know that someone else made that decision, and that he will now stand before judgment for having killed so many people.’”
Online, some Americans said they saw absolutely nothing wrong with Sunday’s outpouring.
“If you cannot cheer about the demise of a truly wicked man who took so much from us, what do you celebrate?” asked Edward Hannigan, 45, of Chico Hills, Calif., editor of an online music magazine, on Facebook. In another post, he added: “I’m damn happy he’s dead. And on top of that, I hope it hurt. A lot.”
But Donna Guhr, a waitress in Crestone, Colo., refused to cheer. “Out of ALL the people here in my town I’ve spoken with I only know two people who agree with the celebrating,” she wrote, also on Facebook. “Gives me hope.”
In a follow-up phone interview, Guhr, 44, said she was concerned about scenes of the jubilation inciting retaliatory attacks. “He had a lot of followers, and they’re not getting any happier with us,” she said of bin Laden.
She added that the celebrations made her recall a quote attributed to Gandhi: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
Not surprisingly, the question reached the late-night comedy shows.
“I hope I am never again this happy over someone’s death,” quipped Stephen Colbert on Monday night on “The Colbert Report.” His fellow Comedy Central host, Jon Stewart, mused: “I suppose I should be expressing some ambivalence about the targeted killing of another human being. And yet — uhhhh, no!”
Some serious concerns came from religious leaders.
The Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote that bin Laden’s death was justified as an act of war, but not as an act of justice. He said death should never be celebrated.
“Such celebration points to the danger of revenge as a powerful human emotion,” he wrote on his website this week.
The Vatican said Christians could never rejoice about the death of any human being. But spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi noted that bin Laden was responsible for having caused the deaths of countless innocents and for having used religion to spread “division and hatred among people.”
And the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, an association of about 700 conservative congregations in the U.S., said its tradition “warns us not to celebrate the death of any human being, even of our worst enemies, but it does not stop us from gratitude that some measure of justice has been exacted.”
On Wednesday, just south of ground zero, Phyllis Mitchell was sitting on a bench in front of a restaurant, keeping on her hardhat during a break from her construction job — helping rebuild the trade center. She was wary of what Thursday might bring, along with the president.
Though she didn’t think the president himself was gloating, Mitchell said she was unhappy with what she’d seen on Sunday night in the same spot.
“I didn’t like the celebrations I saw,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to celebrate anybody’s death. Even his.”