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Thu 5 May 2011 06:59 PM

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Bin Laden again unites, then divides, US and Europe

Osama's death at the hands of US troops brings new wave of responses across the Atlantic

Bin Laden again unites, then divides, US and Europe
Jubilant Americans poured into Times Square to chant "USA, USA, USA!" on news of Osama bin Ladens death
Bin Laden again unites, then divides, US and Europe
(Getty Images)
Bin Laden again unites, then divides, US and Europe
US papers react to news of the death of Osama bin Laden
Bin Laden again unites, then divides, US and Europe
Bin Laden again unites, then divides, US and Europe
(Bloomberg Images)
Bin Laden again unites, then divides, US and Europe
European papers react to news of the death of Osama bin Laden
Bin Laden again unites, then divides, US and Europe

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. 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 were no less triumphant. 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 Metcalf, the British editor-in-chief of the Metro newspapers in the US, 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."

A glance at 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." 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" with the scenes of jubilation from the Middle East after 9/11 that drew cries of barbarity from the US:

"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. "There's a sense of being appalled."

Californian Daniel Leraul, who works in Spain, said: "My European friends ... are very cynical about it. They don't agree with Obama's statement that justice was done."

There is no shortage of comment in Europe that would be at home in the US media. Recalling New York and the 2005 London bombings, Britain's best-selling Sun headlined: "Bin Laden unarmed - just like his 9/11 and 7/7 victims," echoing its sister paper the New York Post's "Got him! Vengeance at last."

Writing in Germany's top-selling Bild, commentator Joerg Quoos slammed critics of center-right Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had 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?"

And in the country's business newspaper Handelsblatt, editor Gabor Steingart wrote: "Should we enjoy the murder of a human being? The short answer is: No. The somewhat longer answer: In this case, yes, because the violent death of Osama bin Laden is connected to hope. One death possibly helps prevent many.

"American success excites and shames us Europeans. A continent that is equal to the population and economic power of the US 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: This war is not the same kind of war we know from our history books."

Continued on next page...

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 long-standing cultural differences. Some say Europeans, who typically scorn Americans' taste for the death penalty and have much lower levels of religious faith, also see a murkier world than one where good battles the "evil" which some Americans declared was their enemy after September 11.

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 US military interventions after the attacks on the US - "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 [European] 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."

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 US in the UN Security Council to engage in military action in Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 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."

 

 

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