Germany’s civilized killjoys

Germany’s civilized killjoys
Photo: DPA

Are Germans right to criticize the joyous reaction to the killing of Osama bin Laden? Der Tagesspiegel’s Moritz Schuller detects a misplaced whiff of condescension.


Apparently the jubilation of the death of the world’s leading terrorist has exposed the Americans for the archaic, vengeful warriors they are.

"What kind of country celebrates an execution in this way?" asked an indignant Jörg Schönenborn, the editor-in-chief of German public broadcaster WDR, after Osama bin Laden had been killed. And he’s not the only one.

Germany is suddenly teeming with grand muftis, who can explain in detail why a burial at sea is un-Islamic and therefore an affront to the Muslim world. And there are loads of moralizing philosophers espousing the view that Chancellor Angela Merkel was wrong to rejoice over an enemy’s demise. Of course, we shouldn’t forget the legions of wise legal experts, who always seem to know best.

"It was clearly a violation of applicable international law," said former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt on a TV talk show recently. Is this the same Schmidt who gave the order to for the GSG 9 anti-terrorist force to shoot hijackers aboard a Lufthansa plane in Mogadishu before they had a chance to ask for a lawyer? "It doesn’t fit with my understanding of law and order that murderers are simply gunned down," said Schönenborn last week. But would he have said that on national television back in 1977?

Many Germans have clearly been unsettled by the impressive US military operation culminating in the death of terrorist leader bin Laden. Their mistrust can be read from the widespread responses the extrajudicial killing has provoked: bin Laden was no longer relevant to the operational work of al-Qaida; there was no due process; the rapid disposal of the body was suspicious; the Americans’ vengeance and rejoicing over a death is uncivilized; the Muslim world had long since turned away from bin Laden; or it was all just blatant electioneering for an embattled President Barack Obama.

In short, the American operation came too late and was not really necessary, according to many in Germany. The fact that the Americans received crucial information as to the whereabouts of bin Laden’s hiding place through questionable interrogation methods at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp completely discredited the mission for the German sceptics. What is there to cheer about?

But these are smug words from individuals who believe they always know better. They make it sound as if the Germans wouldn’t have shot bin Laden, but would have talked him into agreeing to surrender legally – there and then in the middle of the night – before taking him into custody. But this approach wouldn’t have satisfied anyone either – after all, Germany has been unwilling to take former Guantanamo detainees in the past. This nasty terrorist problem is ultimately a matter for the Americans, they think. However, the German conceit – this black and white perspective – has nothing to do with the realities of such an operation.

And the anti-American subtext of the unenthusiastic German response to the execution of bin Laden isn’t the most jarring aspect. Far more remarkable is the distance – as if Germany is no longer part of this war on terror. As if there were no German forces in Afghanistan. As if 9/11 mastermind Mohammed Atta never lived in Germany. As if the Germans who died in Djerba in 2002 suffered from food poisoning. As if three men weren't just arrested plotting bomb attacks in Düsseldorf.

And so, for Germany, the death of Osama bin Laden marks the end of the inglorious chapter of history that started on September 11, 2001. Even if Germany today appears unmoved by the event, the country remains deeply enmeshed in the fight against terrorism and its causes. No-one is obliged to rejoice, but it’s also wrong to shamelessly wash our hands of the whole affair.

The Americans have been doggedly on Osama bin Laden’s trail for ten years. The Germans, on the other hand, have used this time to remove themselves from their own responsibilities. So much so, that Germany’s corner pub ethicists and armchair jurists can now condescendingly grade others still trying to make a difference.

This commentary was published with the kind permission of Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, where it originally appeared in German. Translation by The Local.



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