Germany's Telling Reaction to bin Laden's Death

By Jackson Janes

National debates tell us something about the unique psyche of a country, and the current debate in Germany and the U.S. about the killing of Osama bin Laden is another window on how both countries collectively think and interpret information.

The unfolding debate during the past week in Germany has been illustrative of a national psyche rooted in past history, despite the initial response to the death of bin Laden from Germany's leadership, which was supportive of Obama's actions. Chancellor Merkel expressed her feelings by saying that she was happy to hear about it - and that got her into lots of trouble with the German press and many political figures.

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The criticism leveled at the Chancellor's comments took aim at the alleged celebration of a death; bin Laden was essentially executed, it was claimed, without a right to a trial, a lawyer and access to justice. The U.S. had effectively acted over and beyond the law and Merkel should not support such behavior, went the argument.

German criticism has also been leveled at President Obama and the U.S., much of which has been indeed insulting, such as the accusation that he went ahead with the action to ensure his reelection next year. And yet the American debate over how we deal with our enemies is more than robust - reflected in the arguments about closing Guantanamo or the use of waterboarding to gather intelligence. Americans are quite capable of taking on these debates on our own. We can see that now in the discussion about what actually took place, following the clumsy way the administration has presented the story so far. But regardless of what went down, we don't need to be lectured about what the issues are.

In many ways, the parameters of the debates in Germany and the U.S. about the bin Laden case are unavoidably different. The perception of the threat and the fight against it in Germany and in the U.S. has not always been shared, and some of that has to do with the fact that Germany has not been burdened with a 9/11 experience. The U.S. suffered the attack 10 years ago and it remains an open wound. The way we responded to it in the meantime has not been free of mistakes, about which we continue to argue. While we do share the fear of threats, the context in which we look over the tools we see as available to respond with is different.

The German debate over these issues of law, justice and the use of force is a legitimate one. Yet in the case of bin Laden, the questions Germans are wrestling with have as much to do with their own national psyche, its historical parameters and a desire to appear on the moral high ground. Under different circumstances, the debate might be focused in a different way. And to suggest that the United States has lost the legitimacy to deal with a murderer like bin Laden in light of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo is moralizing gone astray.

But this is not the mainstream in Germany - nearly half the country sees the U.S. as justified in eliminating bin Laden, while the remaining half believes the U.S. should have tried to arrest him and put him on trial. And since the majority of Americans and Germans think that the dangers from terrorism will not be fading away with bin Laden's death, the issue is not whether a murderer has been dealt with but how we deal those who are left.

Out of the German and the U.S. debates should hopefully come some effort to examine how we both are going to have to deal with the real threats we face in the future. We need to argue about how to pursue a strategy which represents what we are fighting for and against, preserving the former but being relentless against the latter. What we don't need is a holier-than-thou argument that ignores and undermines transatlantic efforts to eliminate the remaining threats.

Dr. Jackson Janes is the Executive Director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University and has been engaged in German-American relations for over four decades.

 

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