Shed no tears for Osama Bin Laden

George W Bush warned Bin Laden: “You can run, but you can’t hide.” The reality was different.

Let's not weep for him. Construct elaborate conspiracy theories around him. Pretend there is some moral ambiguity to the manner of his passing.

Osama Bin Laden was not, as the Hamas leadership tellingly tried to claim, a "Holy Warrior". He was a murderer and a mercenary, an atrocity for hire.

Nor was yesterday a day when, according to Stop the War, "The US and Britain should remind themselves of the grievances which Bin Laden claimed in 2001." It was a day for remembering the thousands who died in the 11 September attacks, and the grotesque global slaughter that followed.

"This hasn't made us any safer," will become the refrain over the days to come. True enough. Bin Laden's profile made him an operational liability. And al-Qaeda is so structurally diffuse that it is now a concept, rather than a cohesive organisation.

But yesterday was not about security. It was about justice.

I have no personal link to 9/11. I know no one who was in the twin towers, on on United 93, or in the Pentagon. But I visited New York about six weeks after the attack and walked around Ground Zero.

It looked like a giant building site, unremarkable except for the images of the missing that were posted on the exterior fencing. Normal life had resumed. The yellow cabs were passing, the hot-dog vendors doing brisk trade. The office workers were already rushing by without a second glance.

But death was standing beside me on the side walk: it was palpable. An act of indescribable violence had scarred that place, and even if you hadn't any context of time or location you would have sensed it.

Bin Laden was the perpetrator. We need no court appearance to confirm that fact. He confessed himself.

Actually he didn't confess. No orange jumpsuits or prison dogs or waterboarding were needed to loosen his tongue.

He boasted about it. Videoed himself exulting in the massacre. And distributed it, like a promo tape, for broadcast in prime time.

There are some who question his killing rather than his capture. Reports of the Navy Seal insertion team being greeted with rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire hold the answer. From everything we know about Bin Laden, this was not a man inclined to throw up his hands and say, "It's a fair cop, guv."

I do have a passing regret he wasn't seized and placed on trial. It's been argued that this would have been a process fraught with complexity. It would have given him a platform and further boosted his status as challenger of western imperialist oppression.

I think it would have had the opposite effect. Demythologised him. Made him real and human and ordinary. As with Eichmann in Jerusalem, the world would again have borne witness to the banality of evil.

But these are details, not issues of great substance. Yes, perhaps there was something slightly tasteless about the scenes of celebration that marked his demise. But flying an airliner packed with innocent men, women and children into the side of a skyscraper is pretty tasteless, too.

It's a trite phrase, but no less true because of it: the world is a better place. Every global despot and dictator is looking over his shoulder. The good old days when they could place entire populations between themselves and an international reckoning are over. Or they fear they are, which, for the moment at least, will suffice.

And why yesterday was not the best day for the Independent to run the headline "Targeted assassinations are a strategic mistake".

The political dynamics of the globe's sole, if ageing, superpower have also shifted. It's not that the incumbent president is now a certainty for re-election in 2012; that Donald Trump was being seriously discussed as a potential challenger proved it was never in doubt. But the settled wisdom that Republicans are strong on national security and Democrats weak has been turned on its head.

George W Bush warned Bin Laden, "You can run, but you can't hide." But the fact was that he could run from Bush, but he couldn't hide from Barack Obama.

And what of basic humanity? A fellow human being is dead, a life silenced for ever. Surely that should give pause?

No. True humanity should not give pause. Compassion, empathy and understanding demand only one response: that we recall those who fell at Bin Laden's command. Empathise with those who were left behind. And understand the reaction of those who rejoice in the closure his own death brings.

In truth there will be no closure. The families will always mourn. The images of that crisp, clear day will always be with us. The war it unleashed, in reality just another battle in a war we have been fighting for centuries, will continue.

But Osama Bin Laden has passed into history. We need shed no tears over that.

Getty.
Show Hide image

What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.