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The European Media Reacts to Death of Osama Bin Laden

European journalists have focused on whether the killing was permissible under international law; some are now calling for an international commission to investigate the American action.

by
Soeren Kern

Bio

May 5, 2011 - 12:08 am

Leading newspapers and magazines in Europe have provided saturation coverage of the death of Osama bin Laden. Although initial media reaction in Europe was overwhelmingly supportive of the American commando operation, media outlets in many countries quickly regained their composure and anti-Americanism has now returned as their default position.

European media, almost without exception, have focused particular attention on the news that bin Laden was not armed when he was killed by American operatives. Many Europeans have criticized what they describe as America’s “wild-west” concept of justice. Dozens of European newspapers have published lengthy philosophical essays by sundry intellectuals that examine the morality of bin Laden’s killing. Many argue that bin Laden should have been tried in a court of law.

In a reflection of the acute sense of moral superiority that is so common in contemporary Europe, secular analysts who are normally highly disdainful of Judeo-Christian moral codes have gone so far as to accuse the United States of violating the Fifth Commandment, without a hint of irony.

In Germany, the media reaction has been especially noteworthy for its near unanimous criticism of the American raid. Many German analysts say the American action was illegal under international law and some Germans have called for an international commission (similar to the Goldstone Commission in Israel) to investigate the U.S. foray into Pakistan. Unanswered remains the question of whether European activists will accuse U.S. President Barack Obama of war crimes and seek a warrant for his arrest as they did for George W. Bush, who recently was forced to cancel a trip to Switzerland.

In Britain, the left-wing Guardian newspaper ran a story titled “Osama bin Laden: U.S. Changes Account of al-Qaida Leader’s Death” which says:

The U.S. has backed away from its initial account of the killing of Osama bin Laden, which claimed that the al-Qaeda leader was carrying a weapon and fired at U.S. troops before he was shot dead.

* * *

[Q]uestions [are] being raised as to why Bin Laden was shot dead, and whether he was executed, rather than taken into custody.

Another Guardian story is titled “For 10 years, Osama bin Laden filled a gap left by the Soviet Union. Who will be the baddie now?” It says:

Neoconservatives, “terror journalists” and Osama bin Laden himself all had their own reasons to create a simple story of looming apocalypse.

* * *

But he was also in a strange way a godsend to the west. He simplified the world. When communism collapsed in 1989, the big story that had been hardwired into citizens of western countries – that of the global battle against a distant dark and evil force – came to an abrupt end. Understanding the world became much more complicated until, amid the confusion of a global economic crisis in 1998 and the hysterical spectacle of the Monica Lewinsky affair, bin Laden emerged as the mastermind behind the bombings of embassies in east Africa.

* * *

With bin Laden’s death maybe the spell is broken. It does feel that we are at the end of a way of looking at the world that makes no real sense any longer. But the big question is where will the next story come from? And who will be the next baddie? The truth is that the stories are always constructed by those who have the power. Maybe the next big story won’t come from America. Or possibly the idea that America’s power is declining is actually the new simplistic fantasy of our age.

Finally, the Guardian, echoing many other European newspapers, hopes the demise of bin Laden will accelerate the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.

A story in the Guardian titled “Osama bin Laden Killing Sparks Calls for Early Afghanistan Withdrawal” says:

The killing of Osama bin Laden has opened up divisions inside Barack Obama’s administration over whether the withdrawal of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, which is scheduled to begin this summer, should be bigger and faster than planned.

Politicians, soldiers and analysts from the U.S. to Afghanistan have debated whether the removal of the al-Qaida leader will shorten the war and open the way for reconciliation with the Taliban.

A fawning love letter to Obama by the left-wing Independent titled “Obama Has Shown the World Why it Fell in Love with Him” says:

He is not the Messiah, but he deserves to sleep easy in his bed, and leave the 3am angst to malevolent midgets like Donald Trump who will never trouble him again.

* * *

To those watching at home and around the world, he said, “a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.” After two years of hawkish foreign policy barely distinguishable from his predecessor’s, he has made good on that promise – not just with the killing of bin Laden, but by its manner. All the expert advice, we read, was to do what the Bushes, Clinton, Reagan and all other leaders in memory, recent or otherwise, would have done, which is flatten the compound and its environs with missiles.

* * *

People have criticised him for being ‘professorial’ as well as arrogant. They will do so no longer. He pondered for months, studied the research, weighed up the evidence, and reached the right conclusion. This is one cool, tough prof, and the lesson he has taught by example won’t quickly be unlearnt. In asymmetric warfare against a stateless enemy, invading sovereign states and slaughtering civilians is not the way to go.

If that sounds childishly simple, it defeated the simpleton Bush and his brutish cabal as they confused two-bit fake patriotism with American self-interest, and indiscriminate crusader cruelty with military wisdom. Let no one hear attempts to share Obama’s credit with Dubya without revulsion. He failed pitifully in this, as in almost every thing else, and even if water-boarding a key al-Qaeda operative helped to identify the courier, it cannot begin to justify holding boys of 14 and senile 89-year-olds at Guantanamo Bay. Guantanamo remains open. Obama hasn’t honoured on every promise, nor will. He is not the Messiah, although if the Kool Aid truck has redelivered at last, make mine an octuple.

Also at the Independent, Robert Fisk, the veteran Middle East correspondent, like many of his left-wing colleagues, has tried to promote conspiracy theories.

One essay by Fisk is titled “If this is a U.S. Victory, Does that mean its Forces Should go Home Now?” It says:

And there’s Bin Laden’s secret burial in the Arabian Sea. Was this planned before the attack on Bin Laden, with the clear plan to kill rather than capture him? And if it was carried out “according to Islamic rights” – the dead man’s body washed and placed in a white shroud – it must have taken a long time for the officer on the USS Carl Vinson to devise a 50-minute religious ceremony and arrange for an Arabic-speaking sailor to translate it.

Another Fisk conspiracy theory is titled “Was He Betrayed? Of course. Pakistan Knew Bin Laden’s Hiding Place all Along.” It says:

A single shot to the head, we were told. But the body’s secret flight to Afghanistan, an equally secret burial at sea? The weird and creepy disposal of the body – no shrines, please – was almost as creepy as the man and his vicious organisation.

* * *

The Americans were drunk with joy.

* * *

By midday yesterday, I had three phone calls from Arabs, all certain that it was Bin Laden’s double who was killed by the Americans – just as I know many Iraqis who still believe that Saddam’s sons were not killed in 2003, nor Saddam really hanged. In due course, al-Qaeda will tell us. Of course, if we are all wrong and it was a double, we’re going to be treated to yet another videotape from the real Bin Laden – and President Barack Obama will lose the next election.

The center-right Daily Telegraph, in an essay titled “How Many More Details of the bin Laden Raid will need to be ‘Clarified’?” says:

Oh dear, and it was all going so well. The White House has just “clarified” crucial aspects of the special forces operation  that ended with the execution of Osama bin Laden. Specifically, it has pointed out that the leader of al-Qaeda was not firing an AK-47 when he was shot dead and that his wife was neither killed nor used as a human shield. Those three vivid details of the raid were the ones that dominated newspaper front pages across the world – and not one of them turns out to be true.

The glaring difference between the two versions was being attributed to “confusion” by the White House. What officials called the “fact pattern” – and we would call the truth – was only emerging as more of the participants were debriefed. This is all rather troubling. The fog of war does lead to confusion and mistakes but wouldn’t it have been more sensible if the White House had debriefed all the participants before pumping out headline-grabbing but inaccurate accounts of the action?

Also in the Telegraph, an essay titled “The Death of Osama bin Laden is American Rough Justice, Wild West-Style” says:

America is a nation of laws, but beneath all that fine sentiment about procedure there is a stronger hunger for natural justice. One is put in mind of the great, 19th-century historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, whose work on the Wild West discovered and defended an American tradition of personal, violent justice. Lynch law and vendettas, he wrote, were the informal exercise of a people’s will to obtain a verdict that the state was currently powerless to achieve. Europeans had been emasculated by their reliance upon formal law and bureaucracy. It was in the American wilderness that the individual was once again freed to pursue their own kind of rough justice. The assassination of Osama is as American as the shootout that killed Billy the Kid. It is a personal Wild West drama writ-large on the global stage.

Then there’s the continental European media.

In France, in an analysis titled “Democracy Strikes Back: A French View On America After Bin Laden,” Dominique Moïsi, a respected French analyst of transatlantic relations, says:

The death of Osama bin Laden allows the United States to redefine crucial relationships: with itself, and with the rest of the world.

* * *

This wasn’t a case of America showing off its superior technology; it was neither drones nor missiles that ended the hunt for bin Laden. It was the audacity, courage and determination of its soldiers that made the difference in “avenging” the innocent victims of 9/11.

* * *

America might have entered a relative phase of decline, and its staggering debt places the nation in an undoubtedly uncomfortable situation of dependence on China. But it nonetheless still remains the only great “multi-dimensional” power. Neither China, nor India, nor Russia, and even less so the European Union, have the capacity or the will to undertake an operation like the one that led to the death of Osama bin Laden.

* * *

“Hard power,” the power to compel, is indispensable, and “soft power,” the power to convince, is not sufficient by itself. This is an essential lesson for Europe, but does it come too late?

Also in France, the weekly newsmagazine Le Point, in an article titled “Bin Laden’s Fatal Error,” says:

Americans retrieved old notions of vengeful and speedy justice that they had never completely lost since the conquest of the West. “We got him,” proclaimed banners, in response to Barack Obama’s own words announcing that U.S. commandos had killed Osama bin Laden. “Justice has been done,” the president said simply.

* * *

Just as the Japanese had underestimated the terrifying consequences that their treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 would have for them four years later, bin Laden may have underestimated the anger and the desire for revenge that he would arouse by striking the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

But what of the German media?

Germany’s center-right Die Welt, in an article titled “Is Killing Bin Laden Worthy Of A Great Democracy?” says:

The images coming from the U.S. were reminiscent of the scenes following Saddam Hussein’s capture in December 2003, when he was hiding in a hole in a farm near the town of Tikrit. What followed was a degrading treatment of the Iraqi president on the world’s stage, allegedly to determine his identity. In fact, the show was meant to demonstrate the power of the United States.

* * *

The message was clear: we can catch anyone, and no one is safe. This time, it was Osama bin Laden who had his turn – the al-Qaeda leader was the No. 1 public enemy in the United States. A $50 million bounty had been issued for his capture: “dead or alive.”

* * *

President Obama personally gave the order for the mission, and Americans are now celebrating as if killing Osama bin Laden had solved all of their problems in one stroke – high unemployment, runaway national debt, failed health care reform, the country’s tarnished prestige in the world.

* * *

The execution of Osama bin Laden – or it is better to speak of murder? – allows Americans to forget their troubles for a moment. It is like a balm on the wounds of the nation. In the rush of emotion, no one is asking the questions that need to be asked. For example – was it really Osama bin Laden who was killed? Is it possible that it was one of his doubles?

* * *

In the United States, the accused have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Guilt or innocence can only be decided in a proper court of law. Osama bin Laden was given the “short shrift.” He did not have the opportunity to defend himself from the accusations made against him, he had no fair trial, no lawyer. He was probably not even asked to surrender. Such a procedure is unworthy of a constitutional state. Even Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution of the Jewish question, was given due process before he was sentenced to death.

* * *

If we ask ourselves, “cui bono?” (“who benefits?”), the answer is clear: the United States. The superpower was caught cold by the recent uprisings in the Arab world, it has failed to solve the Palestinian question, it has not even come to terms with inflation at home. Something needed to happen.

* * *

The timing was not perfect, but apparently no one wanted to wait until the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

* * *

At the very least, we should now demand the creation of an independent commission to investigate whether or not, and under what circumstances, Osama bin Laden was killed. Only then will we know for certain and prevent the spread of conspiracy theories like the ones that have developed about events such as the moon landing and 9/11.

* * *

The leader of such a commission would need to be an experienced and impartial jurist.  For example, Richard Goldstone, the former Chief Justice of South Africa, who investigated Israel’s latest operation in Gaza.

The left-wing magazine Spiegel, in an article titled “He is Dead: Hurray?” says:

Much has been said about the Christian-influenced West’s civilizational superiority to the Islamic countries. But what is happening in the United States gives a different impression. When Americans celebrate the death of bin Laden with dancing and shouting over loudspeakers, it is horrifying to us [Germans/Europeans]. The bizarre cheers show us that American society is alien to us. …

* * *

“In God We Trust” is on every U.S. dollar bill, but this is not the forgiving God of the New Testament God – but rather the vengeful God of the Old Testament. In this country [Germany], rehabilitation is the goal of society, in the U.S. it is retaliation, including the death penalty.

* * *

That the death penalty may be imposed on bin Laden, even without trial, if only the crime and anger are big enough, and that their enforcement is enthusiastically applauded, proves how deeply the “eye for an eye” ideology is rooted in American society. Resentment may be powerful – morally superior it is not.

Also in Germany, the Legal Tribune, which is affiliated with Spiegel, published an article titled “On the Problem of the State’s ‘License to Kill’” which says:

Was the United States entitled to liquidate their No. 1 public enemy so easily and without a trial? When a state kills specific individuals without first trying them in a court of law, this is an illegal action. Beyond the question of whether the victim may have deserved his fate, human rights laws prohibit the killing of persons without following legal processes, such as those established by Article 6, Paragraph 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights dated 16 December 1966. For this reason, the U.S. military drone attacks in Pakistan, as well as Mossad hit squads to kill a Hamas arms dealer in Dubai in January 2010, are a violation of human rights. In addition, they are a major breach of international legal principle of non-interference; see for example Article 2 of the UN Charter.

The left-wing magazine Stern, in an article titled “Were They Allowed to do This?” says: “Osama bin Laden’s death is a political success for the USA. But were U.S. commandos allowed to just kill the leader of al-Qaeda? Or was this a case of ‘might makes right’?” Stern then lays out three legal scenarios: 1) Yes, it was legal because it was a police action; 2) Yes, it was legal because he was involved in a war; and 3) No, it was an illegal execution. The magazine prefers option 3 and says: “The U.S. government has so far only said the operation adhered to legal standards. It is still unclear what standards Obama’s lawyers mean.”

The left-wing Berliner Morgenpost, in an article titled “America Celebrates Bin Laden’s Death – and Shames Itself,” says:

Many Americans are celebrating the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden with euphoria and pure hate. Some Americans have expressed shame over the empty triumphalism.

* * *

Time, the old, once proud, now ailing news magazine, has announced that bin Laden will be on the magazine’s cover for a fourth time, this time with a red cross over a rogue portrait. Adolf Hitler, in its issue of May 7, 1945, was the first to have the privilege. Then, after a long break came Saddam Hussein (2003) and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (2006). … The American writer Mark Twain was the first to point out the conflicted American psyche when he wrote: “I never wished a man to die, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.”

The centrist Süddeutsche Zeitung, in an essay titled “Applause for Bloody Revenge,” says:

Obama argues that by killing bin Laden “justice” has been restored. But many say the U.S. president has appealed to an “Old Testament sense of justice,” that is to say, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. This is actually “revenge” and has no international legal legitimacy.

In the center-left Frankfurter Rundschau, an article titled “Merkel’s False Joy” says:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a pastor’s daughter and the leader of a party that calls itself Christian. One should think that the Ten Commandments serve as their guide. For example, the fifth, “You shall not kill.” Now this is a recommendation on which every civilized human being can agree.

* * *

But how do we fit this with the message of the Chancellor: “I am delighted that we managed to kill bin Laden.” She is happy about the violent death of a terrorist, but who after all was also a human being. Was she paying attention in church when the pastor taught about the Fifth Commandment?

* * *

In the case of Merkel, the contradiction between the Christian talk and actual conduct is especially noteworthy. But the double standards of Western society is reflected everywhere. Anyone who claims to fight for the rule of law should not trample on its principles.

The centrist Die Zeit, in an article titled “Bin Laden Should Have Been Tried in a Court of Law,” says: “Killing bin Laden was a strategic mistake. A trial of the al-Qaida chief would have demonstrated the superiority of the democratic system. … The U.S. has missed an historic opportunity. … The Western world was in a similar situation once before. How great was the fear of the Allies before the Nüremberg trials. It was feared that Goering’s monologues would renew the enthusiasm of Germans for their slogans. … But the Allies went through it, according to the rule of law and as fair as possible. Today the Nüremburg trials are considered to have sown the seeds for the establishment of the International Criminal Court. … A trial of Osama bin Laden would have sent a very clever signal to the world community, which often has doubts about the principles of democracy (and those of America). It would have been a signal to the democracy movements in Arab countries. … A trial of bin Laden would have shown how much superior the rule of law is to an Al Qaeda-like theocracy.”

In Spain, the center-right ABC, in a commentary titled “Mourners of the New Che,” sums it up:

The reaction of the most ardent supporters of Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and his media sycophants put in evidence the sinister result of years of Zapatero worship among certain sectors of the left. They were unable to congratulate the American president, whom they have worshipped as a “secular saint” in the mistaken belief that he was one of their own. The traditional knee-jerk anti-Americanism promoted by the radical left in our time has led to truly grotesque digressions on the relevance of the death of Osama bin Laden. Some have not shied away from defending bin Laden as the new Che. Making icons of murderers. Mourners crying out against the villainy of the “Evil Empire.” We should not be surprised. They are the same ones that support flotillas to Gaza in support of Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist organization that yesterday condemned “the assassination of the great Arab fighter hero.”

As the passage in this Spanish paper concludes, “the phobia of freedom makes strange bedfellows,” indeed.

Die Zeit,

Soeren Kern is Senior Analyst for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.
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