Bin Laden is Dead — So Why Don’t We Rejoice?

European hand-wringing over the death of the arch-terrorist vindicates Americans who despair of the Atlantic alliance

“On major strategic and international questions today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus. They agree on little and understand one another less and less.” So wrote Robert Kagan in his masterpiece Paradise and Power.

If anyone doubted the truth of Kagan’s statement when it was first published in 2003, the weeks since the death of Osama bin Laden must have made them think again. After President Obama had announced the death of the most prominent mass-murderer of Americans in recent history, crowds came onto the streets of Washington and New York: sometimes in vigil for the lost lives of September 11, 2001, sometimes more raucously, but all grateful that the most prominent foe of their country was dead.

In London, a city that had also reverberated to the effects of bin Laden’s death-cult, the reaction was rather different. Prime Minister David Cameron was careful to stress the ecumenicalism of bin Laden’s victims. From Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop of Canterbury explained that he felt “a very uncomfortable feeling”. Very well, one might say, he is a man of the cloth, unlikely ever to declare himself delighted at the news of bin Laden’s death.

Then the high priests of the new secular church of human rights joined in, though with less humility. Geoffrey Robertson QC and Michael Mansfield QC both proclaimed that the rights of bin Laden had been most shamefully abused. They argued that the American forces who entered the compound of the world’s most wanted terrorist should have conducted themselves differently, preferably arresting him and bringing him to trial in a proper internationally approved court. 

The Guardian and other newspapers picked up on this line, but the main point of the story had swiftly changed. It soon became not about the demise of a celebrated terrorist, but doubt about the wisdom of America’s actions. It was self-doubt that spurred it. By the afternoon of the announcement a radio presenter in London asked me if we shouldn’t be wary of expressions of glee over bin Laden’s death. After all, he said (apparently forgetting that for ten years we have been told that bin Laden has no connection with Islam): “Don’t we live in ‘a multicultural society’ where we must respect the feelings of Muslims?”

On the BBC’s Question Time, in the week itself, and only a few days after the story had broken, a Hammersmith audience booed my suggestion that the death of bin Laden was a good thing. Panel and audience members declared themselves “depressed” by the jubilant American reaction. And inevitably the illegality of the action morphed into the subject of most concern, until the debate was overtaken by a discussion of whether the exact proprieties of Muslim burial rites had been accorded to the terrorist’s body. The near-universal agreement was that they had not, and there was much lamenting of the same.

Of course, this being the UK rather than the US, the people who did take to the streets were not those happy at bin Laden’s demise. On the Friday after his death, a group of Islamists associated with the banned group Al-Muhajiroun, and now calling themselves “Muslims Against Crusades”, marched through London to the US Embassy. About 150 bearded men and their shrouded, invisible wives conducted a funeral procession and prayers for bin Laden. Outside the embassy it turned into that fixture of modern Britain: the Islamists waved placards, insulted America, called for the immediate implementation of Sharia law and promised revenge attacks, with the police ensuring that they were safe doing so.

Writing soon after 9/11, Kagan memorably identified those nations that remain in history (having to act and behave in the way that historical states act) and those who believe they have gone beyond history, indeed surpassed it. The fulfilment of the Kantian dream of universal and perpetual peace is presumed to have come to these countries. Sweden, Ireland, Belgium and many others: these are countries which have entered an era in which they believe themselves to be beyond the temptations and pitfalls of the past. To these people it is not just an idea, but an inevitability, that warfare and conflict are behind them. Admittedly, dispute and conflict do arise, but where they used to be resolved by war, now they are resolved by international law. Conflict is just so 20th century. And of course it’s just as well, because we don’t have the money to pay for it anyway.

For hand-in-hand with the belief that war is behind us is the wish to provide as many people as possible with as much welfare as possible. Defence budgets are cut to a bare minimum, hovering around the one or two percentage mark as a proportion of public expenditure. This allows the vast bulk of available (and unavailable) funds to be splashed out on welfare budgets, producing a populace as physically obese and morally decadent as it is possible to be. In such a state, if a person exists who declares war on your country, your  civilisation, who orders the flying of planes into your buildings and the blowing up of your trains, then that man should be found, handcuffed, read his rights, and led away to speak with lawyers.

There are a number of obscenities at the heart of the British response to bin Laden’s death, but one thing stands at its core. As Kagan puts it, Europe has long inhabited a “post-historical paradise”, while America still lives in the historical world of power and conflict. Britain, having wavered on the brink of history, has now clearly and unmistakably tumbled over the edge, into Europe’s post-historical paradise.

Those who were taken aback at the lack of empathy in Britain or the Continent at Israel’s predicament or America’s reaction to 9/11 have often wondered what it would take to make them understand. Suicide bombings happened in Israel before Europe and when Israel responded by killing terrorists, Europeans responded angrily. But then suicide bombing came to London. Now they’ll understand, people supposed. But the condemnations continued. Perhaps it will be different once we see the end of our enemy number one, they thought. But then bin Laden was killed, and it turned out that it was all rather worse than expected. It wasn’t a matter of “one law for you and another for us”, but rather “one crippling law for you and the same crippling law for us”. To say this attitude is suicidal is to understate it. Suicides don’t usually also demand suicide from their friends.

The enforcement of the principles of evolving international law is being adhered to and propagated in a way that suggests it is about more than law. Immediately after the death of bin Laden, prominent lawyers, commentators and even governments said that there should be an inquiry into the activities of the US Navy Seals who went into bin Laden’s compound. If it was the case that the law had been broken, then a criminal investigation and prosecution should take place. This is not the language or behaviour of people concerned about the rule of law, it is the fixation and mania of the insanely religious. The idea that in response to state or non-state actors who declare war on your societies and kill your people, you should respond with legalisms is the response of people trying to put off the inevitabilities of reality a little while longer.

There are rules in war and there are laws in peace. Exactly where a non-state actor lies in the realm of these laws has been, and should be, a subject for wide debate. But the idea that America, indeed any society, should not have the right to pursue, punish and deter — in the name of justice — its most fevered enemies is a terrible mistake. The desire to cite the law in this is a fatal error. But it is one that the post-historical mind is particularly vulnerable to.

The reason that the law, and international law in particular, is being held on to so rigidly, so blindly and so damagingly, is that it has replaced traditional morality, personal judgment and any other hierarchies, as the sole manner in which to make sense of, and find order in, the world. Those who look to international law to solve the world’s problems once and for all cling to it desperately, squeezing every last drop of ordinary sense from their heads, to pursue a principle to its ultimate conclusion. If we can only extend the latest concepts of international law even to bin Laden, they tell themselves, then the whole world will be ordered and the chaos we fear will no longer terrify us.

This feeling, this desire to extrapolate law to its imagined perfection has led well-meaning people into a new type of fundamentalism, with its new core texts and its new leading lights. But it has also led bad people, who desire to take what our civilisation has achieved in the way of law and security, to exploit our sense of justice and fair play.

Reality, however, has a tendency to bounce back. The commonest mistake and illusion of people throughout history is the illusion of permanence — the mistake of thinking that what is ordinary for you has been the ordinary in the past and will be ordinary in the future. Those who think they live in post-history may be no more prone to this tendency than their ancestors, or any more aware of the fact. But the completeness of the presumption that they are beyond history is the surest signal of all that they are about to re-enter it at some point very soon.

British and European populations have been living under the umbrella of American security for more than a generation. There are people in old age who have never known anything else. Borrowed money has been used to finance a way of life which seems no longer willing to fight for its own survival. We love our rights, we love our comforts and we love ourselves. But we do not love these things enough to believe that anybody who seeks to take them away from us is an enemy to be dealt with in the traditional way. Because there are other people to do that for us. Or were.

States are only able to feel beyond history because there are other states, like Israel and America, who remain in it, who kill our enemies for us and keep us safe because we do not have the inclination, the time or the money to so distract ourselves from our pleasures. When that is the normal way of things to us, we expect the same behaviour of others. And of course we end up — as Britain now so surely has — turning on, and eventually hating, the very people who give us the security for which we will no longer take the responsibility ourselves. 

Within hours of crowds turning out on American streets in jubilation at the news of bin Laden’s death we Europeans — and not just the chattering classes — were back to our new favourite game: anti-Americanism. And it turned out that even Barack Obama, the impossibly favoured American President, the man Europeans loved so much they said America would never vote for him — even that man cannot shield America from the hatred those it protects now feel for it.

How backward those American demonstrations seemed to them. How embarrassing. How un-nuanced. And no one, it seemed, across the whole panoply of hand-wringers had time to ponder whether their delicious moral qualms would even be possible had not men far younger than they, drawn from throughout America, risked their lives for years in dusty compounds, pursuing enemies whose existence the people they protected often doubted.

There is an unreality at the centre of the Europe that Britain has joined. The unreality of its economics has recently become visible and finally begun to hit. But the historical unreality — the thing that keeps Europeans feeling so much better than their protectors, and so much worse than their enemies — has also come into the plainest view. No clearer sign of it could be imagined than the fact that, when the worst enemy of the West was dead, Europeans failed to display any emotion above a truculent annoyance at the manner of his passing.  

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