A Symbol of the Nation's Mood: 'Europeans Find the Ground Zero Celebrations Somewhat Embarrassing'

The death of Osama bin Laden has raised important questions about how far a country can go in the desire for revenge. In a SPIEGEL ONLINE interview, German political scientist Herfried Münkler discusses whether democracies can carry out targeted killings and talks about the "unthinking naïveté" of the American celebrations at Ground Zero.

A celebration at Ground Zero in New York in the early hours Monday. Zoom
AP

A celebration at Ground Zero in New York in the early hours Monday.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Münkler, US special forces have killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Can a democratic country kill someone like this, without due process or a trial?

Münkler: The answer is an unqualified yes. A democracy is, like a monarchy or an aristocracy, a form of rule. As such, it is justified in resolutely protecting the lives of its citizens as a matter of course and being prepared to take the lives of its enemies. But when it comes to the killing of Osama bin Laden, this question doesn't even arise. If you believe the US government's version of events, US special forces asked bin Laden to surrender. He refused, and therefore met with the same fate that would befall, for example, a mafia boss in Germany or Italy in the same situation.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted by saying she was "glad" that the US had managed to kill bin Laden. She is now being criticized in Germany for expressing satisfaction at his death. Is it acceptable to celebrate the death of a man, even if he was a mass murderer?

Münkler: The question of revenge did not play a major role for Ms. Merkel, in my opinion. She just happened to express herself in an unfortunate way. Her statement shows the semantic insensitivity of a trained scientist. (Eds note: Merkel is a physicist by training.) Instead, Merkel could have said something like: 'I am pleased that the problem of Osama bin Laden being at liberty has been solved' or 'I am pleased that my colleague Obama has achieved such a success.'

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How should politicians deal with the desire for revenge?

Münkler: Two thousand years ago, a Roman politician would have been able to publicly express his pleasure at getting his revenge. The crucial difference is that Western politicians today are people who are influenced by Christianity, people who are bound to the idea of mercy. Only someone who believes in the existence of 'evil' and who does not explain 'evil' in terms of an unhappy childhood, someone who upholds the Old Testament principle of an eye for eye and a tooth for tooth, is justified in publicly expressing their joy at the death of an enemy and their satisfaction at getting revenge. The Americans' reactions to bin Laden's death therefore mainly reflect the fact that they have different values (from Europeans).

SPIEGEL ONLINE: At Ground Zero in New York, people openly rejoiced about the death of bin Laden. The images were reminiscent of Muslims celebrating in the Gaza Strip after the 9/11 attacks. Do you think that is acceptable?

Münkler: For European observers, these kinds of public gatherings are indeed somewhat embarrassing, because they demonstrate a kind of unthinking naïveté, and also because there is something provocative about them. But it was only a small number of Americans who demonstrated their feelings so openly, just as in 2001 it was only a few Muslims who were happy about the thousands who were killed in the terror attacks. Nevertheless, the photos of the revelers at Ground Zero have now become the definitive symbol of the entire nation's mood. That is something that cannot be changed, unfortunately.

Interview conducted by Anna Reimann.

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About Herfried Münkler
DPA
Herfried Münkler, 59, is a professor of political science at the Humboldt University in Berlin. His latest book "Mitte und Mass" ("Middle Ground and Moderation") was published in September 2010.
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