The European View of the Osama bin Laden Killing

From the NYT:

No European government has condemned or criticized the killing of Osama bin Laden by American commandos, but the questions raised about the changing details of his death sharpened considerably after the White House revealed that he did not fire a weapon, was not armed and did not use a woman as a protective shield.

Some are questioning whether “justice” in fact was done, as President Obama portrayed the killing, and whether the American troops made any effort to capture Bin Laden alive or whether they simply executed him. And some think that the scenes of celebrating Americans — whether at the White House or at ground zero — are inappropriate responses that are indecorous at the least and at worst could incite more terrorism.

The disquiet is mostly among those on the left and among the elite in the news media, but it is reminiscent of the atmosphere during the Bush administration and the war against Iraq, when the United States was criticized for unilateralism, arrogance, disrespect for international law, triumphalism and a resort to overwhelming military force.

To be fair, there is no monolithic European view. Opinions there are divided just as they everywhere else, though I suspect there is far more nuance there than, say, on Main Street America, where fist-pumping and flag-waving were, and remain, the order of the day.

There may be some “disquiet” on the left and in some parts of the media, but the Times is generalizing to the point of near-misrepresentation. Clearly not everyone on the European left, whatever that even means, is full of “disquiet.” And, indeed, I suspect that the vast majority of Europeans, including those on the left, are on the American “side.” Consider the outpouring of support after 9/11. We were all Americans then, were we not?

Besides, the concern isn’t so much with what happened but how it happened. Which is to say, the concern is that the U.S. acted unilaterally and applied its own brand justice. That is a legitimate concern, given American tendencies to act unilaterally and without much regard for anyone else, including Europeans, and I would also suggest that the view, which we’re not hearing much of from the U.S., that the U.S. should have taken Osama alive and subjected him to due process is similarly legitimate. And I share the view that some of the reaction to Osama’s killing was indeed somewhat “indecorous,” even if I understand the outpouring of patriotic glee and find little fault with it. I was not in a celebratory mood Sunday night, given the gravity of war, but that is not to say that Americans shouldn’t have let off a little steam.

Now, I actually don’t think that taking Osama alive would have made much sense, and I generally agree with what my friend Richard Barry yesterday about this. I say this with great trepidation, but Osama had to be killed. That was really the only option. A trial and everything surrounding it would have been a circus.

But it would behoove Americans, and all those celebrating what happened, to take seriously the other side. No, not Osama’s side, of course, but the side of those who are understandably experiencing some “disquiet” in the wake of what was, essentially, a state-ordered execution followed by some dishonest spin from the White House and its allies (Osama was living a life of luxury in a million-dollar mansion, Osama was armed and fought back, Osama used a woman as a human shield, etc.).

I remain convinced that it had to be done, though I find that spin unnecessary and counter-productive, as it undermines not the mythology of Osama bin Laden but American credibility. But, yes, “disquiet” is a good word for the certain nagging doubt that prevents me, and so many others, from fully celebrating what was a necessary act. A sense of justice was done. True justice, as ever, continues to elude us all.

(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)

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