America is united in jubilation at the killing of bin Laden while an unsettled Europe ponders the ethics of the operation and future implications, writes Alastair MacDonald
WHEN Osama bin Laden’s men flew airliners into New York’s World Trade Center 10 years ago, they drew 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-Qaida, kept satisfaction more contained and many questioned the legality and morality of the killing and the risk of revenge attacks.
That attitude has simply outraged many Americans.
Tony Metcalf, the British editor-in-chief of the Metro newspapers in the US, writing on his blog on Wednesday, said: “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.”
Metro’s comment thread shows near unanimity on the European criticism: “Arrogant, smug, thoughtless and thankless people,” wrote LisaC in a less vitriolic post.
Undaunted, Metcalf continued to explain how Europeans admire American commitment to shared values of democracy and the rule of law but fear US policy, particularly toward Muslims, 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.”
Americans living in Europe were also aware of the gulf in perceptions.
Bernhard Warner, a freelance journalist working in Rome, said European friends compared the sight of Americans “dancing in the street at the death of someone” with the scenes of jubilation from the Middle East after 9/11.
“I have family and friends in Europe who don’t understand the euphoria,” Warner said. “There’s a sense of being appalled.”
In contrast, Britain’s best-selling Sun headlined: “Bin Laden Unarmed — Just like his 9/11 and 7/7 victims,” echoing the New York Post’s “Got Him! Vengeance at Last.”
Writing in Germany’s top-selling Bild, Joerg Quoos slammed critics of 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?”
In the country’s business newspaper Handelsblatt, editor Gabor Steingart wrote: “American success excites and shames us Europeans. A continent that is equal to the population and economic power of the United States has not seen the will to defend itself, its values and its prosperity. The majority of Europeans, since the Germans are not alone, refuse to accept the central insights of this now 10-year struggle against international terrorism.”
The questions in Europe contrast with a consensus in the US. Some see that as due to different understandings of what bin Laden’s killing may bring for the future. Others put it down to cultural differences.
The European affairs correspondent of The Economist, in a blog, recalled a famous phrase from a 2002 research paper that highlighted Europe’s hesitation to join US military interventions after the attacks on the US — “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.”
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 looks from Times Square or the Champs-Élysées.
“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.”