Bin Laden again unites, then divides, US and Europe
LONDON: When Osama bin Laden’s men flew airliners into New York’s World Trade Center 10 years ago, they sparked an outpouring of solidarity from Europe, captured by a French newspaper under the headline “We are all Americans now”.
It didn’t last. A decade of wars has followed that strained old alliances – few in Paris will forget the US jibes about “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”. And now bin Laden’s death, unarmed, at the hands of American troops has brought a new wave of contrasting emotional responses across the Atlantic.
Jubilant Americans poured into Times Square to chant “USA, USA, USA!” and hit the Internet to snap up T-shirts reading “We Got Him” and “Hey Osama, Tell Hitler We Said Hello.”
Europeans, also targeted by al Qaeda, kept satisfaction more contained, even if tabloid headlines – “Bin Bagged” and the like – were no less triumphant than in the United States. And, crucially, not a few began to question the legality and morality of the killing and the risk of revenge attacks.
That attitude has simply outraged many Americans.
When Tony Metcalfe, the British editor-in-chief of the Metro newspapers in the United States, ran a Reuters story on European qualms over what a former German chancellor called a breach of international law, “we knew it would cause a reaction”.
Writing on his blog on Wednesday, Metcalfe said: “Given the celebrations around the US on Sunday evening, the objections from France, Germany, Spain and parts of the UK came as no surprise, and fitted neatly into many Americans’ view of Europeans as a bunch of, well, cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”
A glance at Metro’s online comment thread shows near unanimity among the paper’s American readers on the European criticism: “Arrogant, smug, thoughtless and thankless people,”
wrote LisaC – in one of the less vitriolic posts.
SHARE VALUES, DIFFERING OUTLOOKS
Undaunted, Metcalfe continued in his editorial blog to explain how Europeans admire American commitment to shared values of democracy and the rule of law but are anxious that US policy, particularly toward the Muslim world, risks harming those values and creating problems for the future.
“Democratic states do not execute people without first going through the judicial process,” he wrote. “If that process is circumvented, then you are no better than the terrorists.
“Is that harsh? Should I, a European, be sent back across the pond with mockery in my ears? You probably think so.
“But I defy you to argue with that logic.”
Across the ocean, Americans living in Europe were also aware of the gulf in perceptions.
Bernhard Warner, a social media entrepreneur and freelance journalist working in Rome, said European friends compared the sight of Americans “dancing in the street at the death of someone” to the very scenes of jubilation from the Middle East after 9/11 that drew cries of barbarity from the United States: “I have family and friends back home who are euphoric and I have family and friends in Europe who don’t understand the euphoria,” Warner said. “It’s really incongruous to Europeans … There’s a sense of being appalled.”
Californian Daniel Leraul, who works in Spain for a non-governmental organisation, said: “My European friends are very cynical about it. They don’t agree with Obama’s
statement that justice was done, I’ve heard stories of people dancing in the streets and I found that a bit much.”
AMERICAN MARS, EUROPEAN VENUS
There is no shortage of comment in Europe that would be at home in the US media. Recalling the 2001 attacks on the United States and 2005 bombings in London, Britain’s best-selling Sun headlined: “Bin Laden Unarmed – Just like his 9/11 and 7/7 victims”. Its sister paper the New York Post brought news of the killing under the title “Got Him! Vengeance at Last”.
Writing in Germany’s top-selling Bild, commentator Joerg Quoos said of critics of centre-right Chancellor Angela Merkel, who welcomed the killing of bin Laden: “What chance did Osama’s killers give the people in the World Trade Center, who were incinerated, atomised or jumped in panic from 100 floors up?”
Yet the extent of questioning in Europe has been in marked contrast to the United States, a feature some put down to broad cultural differences, others to differing understandings between Europeans and Americans of what bin Laden’s killing may bring.
The European affairs correspondent of Britain’s Economist weekly, writing in a blog, recalled a famous phrase from a 2002 research paper that highlighted Europe’s hesitation to join in US military interventions after the 9/11 attacks – “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus”.
The columnist noted contrasting responses among journalists to news of bin Laden’s death: “In Brussels … reporters repeatedly tried to get the (EU) Commission spokeswoman … to denounce the raid as either an extrajudicial killing or an affront to Europe’s opposition to the death penalty.
“In Washington, by contrast, many wanted the White House counter-terrorism adviser to give the technicolor detail of the raid in Abbbotabad … Plainly, Americans and Europeans (or at least their journalists) still inhabit different planets.”
FEARS OF ATTACK
In Rome, journalist Bernhard Warner said he understood the importance his fellow Americans attached to “bringing back the scalp” of bin Laden after years of frustration: “The thing for Americans is the feeling they’ve got the job done,” he said.
On the other hand, “Europeans clearly understand that things are much more complicated than that.”
Hall Gardner, professor of international politics at the American University of Paris, said the key difference was not in antipathy to bin Laden – that is shared – but in how different the future looked from Times Square or the Champs-Elysees.
“It is often forgotten … that the French were the first to support the United States in the UN Security Council to engage in military action in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks …. commanded by bin Laden,” Gardner said. “The French newspaper Le Monde proclaimed, ‘We are all Americans now!’
“Almost 10 years later the French, just like the Americans, are relieved, if not elated, that bin Laden has finally been killed. Yet the difference lies in the general pessimism that pervades France. The French do not believe that the death of bin Laden will … lead to an end to the global war on terrorism.
“They fear new plots and attacks, like the one that killed French citizens in Marrakesh last week, and a real possibility that bin Laden’s followers may be planning a major attack.”