When the world learned that the United States had killed Osama bin Laden, shrewd observers of the liberal political class, particularly its European chapters, knew how they were going to be talking about it. The nearly universal jubilation will be indulged for a day or two, and then the usual brows will furrow and the wise and good begin to express their concerns and worries and doubts. Suitably qualified, of course. Everyone would concede that bin Laden was a very bad man, and had been asking for it, while finding some reason to regret that he had been killed and several reasons to criticize the United States.
Few would definitely condemn the American action, bin Laden being too obviously the enemy even for the most sentimental of liberals to excuse him, as so many still excuse the adorably roly-poly mass murder Mao Tse Tung. (But he was a Communist breaking several million eggs in order to make the new society omelet, and not a religious fundamentalist, so he’s okay. You can’t make an omelet etc.)
They would suggest that the United States acted too quickly, or without enough thought, or without proper consultation, or without thinking of the future, or just in that simple-minded, violent, cowboy way those simple-minded violent American cowboys always act when not restrained by European moral sensitivity. Or, and this image doesn’t contradict that one, in that big, bumbling, clumsy, childish way Americans always act when not restrained by European experience.
And they were going to be ever so disappointed in Barack Obama. Why, he’d been practically European himself, and now they find him almost . . . Texan.
And so it happened. You can find examples everywhere. Most of these examples I’ve taken from Brendan O’Neill’s analysis in Spiked! of the sources of these reactions, which he argues are “fuelled by self-loathing more than justice-loving” and by “a discomfort with decisive action, a fear of what such action might lead to in the future, and a belief that people in the West should douse their emotional zeal and learn to be more meek.” He’s not happy with them, as you might guess.
Many of the concerned, worried, and doubting pointed to the young Americans chanting “U.S.A.!” in the street, which must have seemed the perfect symbol for America’s aggressive disregard for human life and human rights.
”[T]his is very much the American style but I don’t think I’ve ever felt pleased at the death of anybody,” sniffed the Labour party candidate for mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. The United States did not do what he would have done. “We should have captured him and put him on trial. It’s a simple point—are we gangsters or a Western democracy based on the rule of law? This undermines any commitment to democracy and trial by jury and makes Obama look like some sort of mobster.”
The American celebrations, wrote a Guardian columnist (the Guardian is like the New York Times but more so), brought “the same kind of unity that rallies around flags, dismisses dissent and disdains reflection.” Like Livingstone, he thought the United States should have captured bin Laden and put him on trial. “[T]o suggest that ‘justice has been done’, as President Obama did on Sunday night, seems perverse. This was not justice, it was an extra-judicial execution. If you shoot a man twice in the head you do not find him guilty. You find him dead. This was revenge.”
The novelist Kishwar Desai, whose first book recently won England’s major award for first novels, wrote in The Asian Age, “The nuanced reaction in Europe, which takes human rights very seriously, has been a little different to that in the US. . . . He may have been a murderer, a war criminal, or even an evil genius, but if other criminals are given a fair trial why was he not hauled up before an international court of justice? Was President Barack Obama’s rough justice—though put across more eruditely and logically than President George W. Bush ever managed to do—any different to that meted out by Saddam Hussein towards his enemies?”
More vaguely, with his characteristic on-the-one-hand, on-the-other style (he is, to be fair, often trying to understand a matter without simplifying it), the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed his discomfort with the operation. “I think the killing of an unarmed man is always going to leave a very uncomfortable feeling, because it doesn’t look as if justice is seen to be done in those circumstances. . . . I do believe that in such circumstances when we are faced with someone who was manifestly a war criminal, in terms of the atrocities inflicted, it is important that justice is seen to be observed.”
The problem, let me be clear, is not their concern for law. The problem is that they turn to the law without taking pleasure in the justice they could see had been done.
Last Sunday, I was sitting in a local pub with friends when a special report appeared on one of the televisions, but not the one with the sound up. I pointed to the screen, and one of my friends said, “They got bin Laden!” He had grown up in New York and lost a cousin on 9/11, a cousin whose widow and children he sees when he gets back to the city, and for ten years had said that in hope whenever the television or radio announced breaking news.
We asked the bartender to turn up the sound, and heard the anchorman announce that Osama bin Laden had been killed in Pakistan by American forces. A cheer went up. My friend put his face in his hands for several minutes. He then walked out to call his parents. When he came back, we celebrated.
Which is something the concerned, worried, and doubting, at least the European chapters of that brotherhood, apparently do not understand. “While many nations suffered from al-Qaida’s terrorism and few in the world will mourn Bin Laden’s death,” wrote the Guardian columnist, “the United States is the only place where it sparked spontaneous outpourings of raucous jubilation.”
There is, I would have thought, an obvious reason for that, like two planes flying into tall buildings in New York, not London or Paris, but he thinks there’s something wrong with us. “The patriotic impulse in American society is intense and pervasive. The kind of national fervour reserved elsewhere for occasional events like royal weddings, World Cup victories or major tragedies is a dormant reflex waiting for a trigger.”
He offers this in criticism of America, but he’s said something far more damning about Europe. If he’s right, and I have no reason to doubt him even if he’s probably exaggerated the point a little, their patriotisms must not be intense and pervasive, which is to say, hardly patriotism at all. They only get excited about ephemera like royal weddings and World Cup victories or heart-tugging events like tragedies. Not, apparently, by the vanquishing of their country’s enemies and long-delayed justice being done. Not about anything that actually matters.
It was not always so for Europe, even Europe’s liberals. In the words of the concerned, worried, and doubting speaks the exhausted old man whose plumbing has packed it in, who after decades of sexual conquests now prefers the more sedate pleasures of the flesh, from rare old wines to thick socks that keep his feet warm, who now preaches the virtues of chastity and the vanity of sexual indulgence as if he himself had always been the model of continence, and purses his lips censoriously when he sees the young men chasing the young women.
Heaven knows we have our faults and sins, but we do not need lectures on morality from those who now obey their rules only because they’re too tired to break them and find their greatest pleasures in feeling superior to the young.
David Mills is Executive Editor of First Things. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Brendan O’Neill’s The Rise and Fall of the Pity-for-Osama Party.