The rise and rise of a pity-for-Osama lobby
The chattering classes’ ‘uncomfortable feeling’ with the killing of bin Laden is underpinned more by moral cowardice than political principle.
How did ‘I hate bin Laden and I’m glad he’s dead’ become the most shocking thing one can say in polite society?
This week we have shuttled from an atmosphere of congratulation, even muted celebration, over the killing of OBL to what Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and High Priest of the Chattering Classes, describes as a ‘very uncomfortable feeling’ about the killing of OBL. Those who dare to celebrate his death – mainly young American jocks – have been denounced as ‘abhorrent’ and ‘sickening’, and now the main way you advertise your decency, your membership of the civilised, upstanding, oh-so-unAmerican classes, is by wondering out loud if poor old OBL shouldn’t have been arrested and put on trial rather than having a bullet planted in his head.
This pity-for-Osama lobby, this bishop-led congregation of ‘uncomfortable’ moral handwringers, might pose as radical, denouncing America’s military action in bin Laden’s compound as ‘Wild West-style vengeance’. Yet in truth it is fuelled by self-loathing more than justice-loving. These critics are not opposed to Western intervention in principle – indeed, most of them have demanded ‘humanitarian’, political or legalistic intervention in other states’ affairs at one point or another. No, it is a discomfort with decisive action, a fear of what such action might lead to in the future, and a belief that people in the West should douse their emotional zeal and learn to be more meek, which motors the creepingly conformist anti-Obama and pro-Osama (well, almost) brigade. There is little, if anything, in this outburst of concerned liberal moralism that is worth backing.
The most striking thing was the speed with which the great and the good of the Western liberal elite sought to distance themselves from those vulgar, excitable Yanks and to express a more erudite and PC view of OBL’s demise. Barely 24 hours had passed since the dumping of bin Laden’s body in the sea before observers were describing President Obama as a ‘mobster’. ‘Are we gangsters or a Western democracy based on the rule of law?’, asked has-been mayor (and wannabe mayor) Ken Livingstone, who is so used to doing politics in the rarefied environs of London’s mayoral office that he doesn’t realise that the rule of law might not be so neatly applied during a shoot-out in a compound in Pakistan. Elsewhere the killing of bin Laden has already been described as a ‘war crime’ (isn’t everything these days?) while human rights campaigners say it would have been a better advert for Western values if justice against OBL had come ‘from a legitimate court of law rather than the end of gun’.
It didn’t take long for these apparently decent lovers of justice over violence to expose their real fears: that the sight of a few young Americans chanting ‘U-S-A!’ in response to OBL’s death might invite even more Islamist retribution upon us. One writer described this ‘frat boy reaction’ as ‘abhorrent’ – it is ‘sickening’, she said, and, more revealingly, it has ‘no dignity’. A British columnist said the anti-OBL shindigs were the products of a ‘patriotic reflex’ – that is, a nationalist kneejerkism amongst America’s unthinking classes – which is apparently ‘intense and pervasive’. In response to the chant of ‘We killed bin Laden!’, the columnist said: ‘If “they” killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, then “they” also bombed a large number of wedding parties in Afghanistan, “they” murdered 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha and “they” gang-raped a 14-year-old before murdering her, her six-year-old sister and their parents near Mahmudiyah.’ Yep, that’s right – if you celebrate the killing of OBL then you are also implicitly celebrating American atrocities overseas, including rape. Gang-rape-loving dunderheads.
The most telling phrase in that article was ‘they’, which was used again and again, always in quote marks, to refer to ordinary Americans. Because much of the ‘uncomfortable feeling’ over the killing of bin Laden is really an ‘uncomfortable feeling’ with, if not outright disgust for, ‘them’, the people who make up America, and for the ideals of modern America itself. This is ‘very much the American style’, sniffed Livingstone about the anti-OBL get-togethers (which, by the way, were only relatively small, party-style expressions of a fleeting emotion). Other commentators have said that they ‘recoiled’ at the ‘gloating that Americans went in for’. Behind the high-falutin’ expressions of passion for justice over shoot-to-kill, much of the pity-for-Osama lobby is really concerned with expressing its moral superiority over apparently vengeful Americans. Where ‘them’ Yanks still have an attachment to nationalism and war, ‘we’ Europeans are post-nationalist, cosmopolitan, empathetic rather than vengeful, and are far more comfortable with having a man in a wig rather than a man with a gun sort out our moral and political problems.
Of course, such anti-Americanism is not confined to Europe. As we have seen in the 10 years since 9/11 it is rife within America itself, where the better-educated classes have long had an ‘uncomfortable feeling’ in relation to the antics and emotions of the American masses. And so it was that Time magazine, in keeping with the modern trend for explaining away every emotion as a product of evolution or of involuntary brain activity, said that human beings are ‘wired to perceive the punishment of rule-violators as rewarding’. In seeking to explain the appearance of frat boys outside the White House, Time cited scientific research showing that ‘when people witnessed snitches receiving painful electric shocks, the pleasure regions of their brains were activated (but only in men)’. Of course, some people – not ‘them’, but ‘us’ – are immune to this hardwired desire for vengeance and can rise above it to express a more considered ‘uncomfortable feeling’ with OBL’s death.
This is an explicit attempt to delegitimise the political and moral response of some American people to the killing of bin Laden. Their joy seems so alien to the better-minded classes that it can only possibly be explained as a ‘reflex’, an unfortunate ‘evolutionary trait’. It has ‘no dignity’, we are told, but rather springs from a base and instinctive ‘human taste for vengeance’. It is extraordinary, and revealing, how quickly the expression of concern about the use of American force in Pakistan became an expression of values superiority over the American people. The modern chattering classes are so utterly removed from the mass of the population, so profoundly disconnected from ‘ordinary people’ and their ‘ordinary thoughts’, that they effectively see happy Americans as a more alien and unusual thing than Osama bin Laden. Where OBL wins their empathy, American jocks receive only their bile.
There is nothing principled or properly anti-imperialist in the speedily rising critique of the killing of OBL. Indeed, many of those currently attacking Obama would have preferred it if bin Laden had ended up in one of the international courts, which themselves are political theatres for the expression of Western superiority over foreign peoples (usually black ones). If Obama’s troops really did mete out ‘military vengeance’ against someone they judged to be evil, then these courts continually serve up ‘legal vengeance’ against people judged to be war criminals. Also, it is striking that many of the critics of Obama express concern about the alleged emotions behind American militarism – vengeance, Wild West fury, a lack of basic decency – rather than being concerned about the moral question of whether America should have the right to intervene in other states. It’s the sentiment they hate, more than the use of military force overseas per se.
No, the now widespread ‘uncomfortable feeling’ with the shooting of bin Laden is really an expression of moral reluctance, even of moral cowardice, a desire to avoid taking any decisive action or expressing any firm emotion that might have some blowback consequences for us over here. It is the politics of risk aversion rather than the politics of anti-imperialism, the same degraded sentiment that fuelled the narcissistic ‘Not in my name’ response to the Iraq War in 2003.
So these critics fret that the killing of bin Laden, and the ‘scenes of jubilation’ it gave rise to, might heighten the threat of another terror attack. Watching Americans celebrate OBL’s death, Ken Livingstone said: ‘I realised that it would increase the likelihood of a terror attack on London.’ This is really a call to elevate precaution over action, meekness over passionate political feeling, staying at home over taking risks, all in the name of protecting ourselves from any possible future action by a hot-headed Islamist. In this sense, the disdain for America and its people is really an expression of angst about what America is perceived to represent: confidence, cockiness, self-possession, a willingness to take risks (little of which is actually accurate). The post-OBL ‘uncomfortable feeling’ is really a quite craven sentiment, a fear-fuelled desire for self-preservation over anything else, which is dolled up as a principled critique of American militarism.
Look, if you want to have a real debate about Western intervention in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, bring it on. spiked bows to no one in the implacability of our principled opposition to foreign meddling in other states’ affairs. But if you want to tell me that bin Laden was treated badly, and that the allegedly morally unhinged reaction to his death might invite more terror upon us, then I have only one thing to say: ‘Fuck bin Laden.’
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Read his personal website here.