Friday, 6 May 2011

Europe uncomfortable with US Bin Laden celebrations

I've had a rather surreal experience this week watching reaction to the news that Osama Bin Laden was killed by American forces. On Monday morning I woke up and opened Facebook (before anything else, naturally), and saw a string of cryptic statuses chanting things like "USA! USA!" or "I'm so proud to be American today". But for whatever reason none of them said what had actually happened. So I had to open up Google News to learn what had inspired these rather unlikely chants from my "liberal elitist" friends in New York City.

The news was, of course, that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. The announcement by President Obama Sunday night prompted sudden exuberant celebrations in cities across America, the biggest outside the White House and in Times Square. It was reminiscent of the Victory Day celebrations at the end of World War II, a cathartic celebration unleashing a decade of angst Americans had felt since the 9/11 attacks. I found the magnitude of the celebrations a little surprising, but perhaps I had underestimated the effect that America's inability to capture Osama Bin Laden has had on the US psyche. A profound sense of anxiety and humiliation seems to have been lifted from Americans' minds with this killing. And both the left and right are jubilant over it. The American media seems to have regarded these celebrations as a universal good, heralding the way they have brought left and right together and united Americans in the same way that they were united after 9/11. The question does not seem to be asked whether Americans can be 'unified' in a counter-productive instinct.

Having witnessed the 9/11 attacks in person in New York, I could somewhat understand the jubilation in response to the news. Somewhat. But at the same time I found it a bit perplexing, and to be honest it made me a little uncomfortable to watch crowds of Americans jubilantly celebrating someone's death. Yes, it is undoubtedly good that Bin Laden is dead. But the street celebrations seemed, frankly, a bit ghoulish. Because though they resembled the victory celebrations at the end of World War II, in reality the situations are nothing alike. Bin Laden's death does not bring the so-called "War on Terror" to a close. The two (arguably three) active wars the US is fighting in the Middle East will not be affected by this killing. So the only thing these people on the streets were celebrating was the death of an individual, rather than the end of a war. It seemed a bit creepy, and I can't think of another instance in US history where a person's death gave rise to this kind of celebration. It's as if Americans had come to regard Bin Laden as super-human, and they were shocked and relieved that he could be killed with regular bullets.

I wasn't the only one to be a little creeped out by it. Though it was restrained in the first days after the killing, the reaction in Europe to the US celebrations has increasingly been one of unease. On Monday the reaction by European politicians and the press was universally positive, heralding the event as wonderful news. But as the week has gone on there has been increasing questioning both over the jingoistic celebrations in the US and whether the killing was legal under international law.

Nowhere has the discomfort over the US celebrations been more pronounced than in pacifist Germany, as evidenced by the horrified reaction to Angela Merkel's statement on Monday that she was “glad that it was successful, the killing of Bin Laden,." Perhaps in no other country could such a comment have ignited a controversy. But ignite one it did, with many newspapers, church leaders and politicians saying her comment was distasteful. Even her own center-right party has criticised her comments, with Christian Democratic Union politician Siegfried Kauder saying, "That is a vengeful way of thinking that one shouldn’t have; that’s medieval.” Merkel's foreign minister, coalition partner Guido Westerwelle of the Liberals, seemed to criticise Merkel's comments on Wednesday when he called on the West to temper its celebratory responses and to avoid "sending images into the world that could again lead to incitement or to the heroization of Al-Qaida." Katrin Göring-Eckhardt, a vice president of German parliament, told a German newspaper, "As a Christian, I can only say that it is not a reason to celebrate, when someone is killed in a targeted way." Now Merkel is having to backtrack on her comment, but that hasn't made the criticism let up. Yesterday a Hamburg judge even filed a criminal complaint against Merkel for 'endorsing a crime' - a criminal offense in Germany punishable by up to three years in prison.

Many media and religious figures in France and the UK have been expressing increasing discomfort in recent days as well. Following the White House's admission that Osama Bin Laden was unarmed when he was shot in the head, the head of the English church Rowan Williams said yesterday that the killing had left him with a "very uncomfortable feeling". He added that killing an unarmed Bin Laden rather than putting him on trial "doesn't look as if justice is seen to be done."

In the past two days much of the French press has returned to the familiar anti-American rhetoric used in the lead-up to the Iraq War, painting America as an arrogant country that thinks it can act outside international law - even as the French press expresses relief that Bin laden is dead. The left-leaning paper Libération called the exuberant celebrations on the streets of New York a result of the “toxic rhetoric” used in the fight against terrorism and said the celebrations are "unprecedented in a democracy." Even the centrist paper l'Express said the jubilant celebrators in the American streets were aping the "turbaned barbarians who danced the night of September 11th. It is to tell them the ghastly competition continues between them and us.” Other papers have said the celebrations are a result of the "hollywood-like" storyline Americans have created around Bin Laden even while his political influence and power had long since evaporated.

Earlier this week the Vatican took a similar but more toned-down line, saying Christians "do not rejoice" over a death. But the Vatican has long been at odds with America on this issue, with its strong condemnation of the death penalty (which, incidentally, does not exist anywhere in the EU).

There may be a certain obligation the European intelligentsia feels to be the finger-wagging 'conscience of the world', especially when it comes to America. And perhaps there is even a hunger in America, particularly among the left, to hear stern words coming from across the Atlantic whenever America 'misbehaves'. But if the vast majority of people in Europe are 'glad' that Bin Laden is dead, is there a reason to get worked up over the fact that Americans seemed to cross the line of good taste in celebrating the death? Perhaps this is why much of the criticism here seems to be rather half-hearted. It's almost as if the European intelligentsia and religious figures feel an obligation to say something, but don't really want to get into a big debate with America about it.

I don't think this will mean some kind of return to the anti-American rhetoric that existed here during the Iraq War period. Though many Europeans may be uncomfortable with the way the killing was done and the celebrations that resulted afterwards, they are still happy Bin Laden is dead. Don't forget they too have suffered traumatic attacks from Al-Qaeda, notably the London 7/7 bombings and the Madrid train bombings.

It is not the case that Europeans can react more dispassionately to this news than Americans because they have not been attacked and are not a target. Europe and America are both Al-Qaeda targets. It is rather that Europeans and Americans tend to have different attitudes about nationalism, about violence and about good taste. Because of this, celebrations like the ones we saw Sunday night might seem fine to most Americans but will make most Europeans uncomfortable. That's just the way it is, and I doubt that's going to change any time soon. But in the end, both sides of the Atlantic are happy with the result of Sunday's killing.


SarahElektra said...

I do SO love your take on things. As an American who lived in the UK for 9 years and is now back in KY, it's lovely seeing your take on the world and this is just one more post that reminds me why I love your blog! Happy Friday!

Anonymous said...

Americans are diverse. I live in southern california and never saw or felt any of the celebration. I can only hope that all of our Christians will come to see that pride and hate are not condoned in the bible. I am also hoping that the media has blown the magnitude of the celebration out of proportion like they do on everything else.

Daniel said...

Have you seen Europeans at a soccer match?

Brad Zimmerman said...

Ridiculous. Football isn't terrorism and it doesn't usually result in one or more people dying.

Yes, people get worked up at football matches and, yes, hooliganism is a problem. That being said, it is by and large normal people enjoying a game. See the difference?

Daniel said...

@Brad -- I was obviously making a joke. But my broader point was that it's not useful to stereotype large groups of people, or even entire nationalities, based on the actions of a few people. That's what FOX News and other media outlets did to insinuate the entire Islamic world was dancing in the streets after 9/11. The reality is almost always more complicated and I don't think it's useful to perpetuate this group think.

Dave's cherry-picking photo selection here, of groups of young people standing on lamp posts is hardly representative of the reaction I observed on Sunday night on the streets of New York. While there was a small crowd gathered in Times Square, others walked along or stood reading the news tickers with an air of somberness. The hordes of police on the streets were a glaring reminder that this is not an end to the war on terrorism or the ever-growing national security state we inhabit.

In the days that followed, their were voices big and small inside of America that questioned the reaction as well.

There were a lot of discussions this week about whether those kinds of celebrations were in good taste, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Anonymous said...

I'm American and I celebrated, and I don't think I should be embarrassed about it. A truly evil man was removed from the world, justice was done. The US has the right to kill Bin Laden in self-defence because he was planning attacks on the US. If Europeans don't feel like celebrating that's their business, but we're going to celebrate!

Captain Kid said...

It's interesting to see that it is the "Christian" right in the US that promotes this medieval thinking and celebrating of a person's death. Are they even aware of how un-Christian they are?

Daniel said...

Not that polls always show exactly how Americans feel, but this is fairly substantial that 60% would agree it's wrong to celebrate Bin Laden's death.

Kristin M. said...
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