Monday 18 November 2019

Martina Devlin: US glee at Bin Laden's death leaves bitter taste

Flag-waving in New York's Times Square after Bin Laden's death at the hands of US forces was announced on Monday
Flag-waving in New York's Times Square after Bin Laden's death at the hands of US forces was announced on Monday
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

I SPENT a week in New York in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when the country was in lockdown. People were traumatised and fearful following those terrorist strikes that had left almost 3,000 dead with thousands more orphaned or widowed.

But there was a spirit of resistance too -- most readily apparent in the Stars and Stripes flying everywhere from suburban front gardens to the windows of city apartment blocks. Americans used the national standard as a gesture of faith in their way of life, even as it came under attack.

Such an approach was dignified, in contrast with the boorish exuberance unleashed by Bin Laden's death, when revellers waved flags and painted their faces red, white and blue -- debasing this symbol which, of all the world's flags, is perhaps the most iconic.

I remember flying into JFK in September 2001, a plume of smoke from the Twin Towers visible from high in the air. I remember speaking to relief workers, police and firefighters at the rubble that became known as Ground Zero, and they were stoical.

Rescue crews searching for survivors were inundated with volunteers. Within a week, one-and-a-half million pints of blood had been donated.

I remember the commuters who suddenly and silently dissolved into tears. The soldiers patrolling fashionable boulevards. The photographs of missing people on every lamp post and wall. But I also remember the resilience.

It was personified by Sheila O'Connor Langone, an Irish-American mother of two Twin Tower victims who didn't thirst for revenge for her boys -- she wanted justice.

Sheila lost her firefighter son Peter and her police sniper son Tommy at the World Trade Centre, when they raced into the collapsing buildings to help as others ran outside to escape.

Waiting for news of them, as hope for their survival faded, she said: "Whatever happens, I'll take it. I've told the family we will smile again and laugh again and there will be good times."

I thought of her grace under pressure when I heard about Bin Laden's death. The restraint and endurance of people such as her and that army of searchers at Ground Zero collecting body parts showed the United States at its best.

But just when you think the Age of Triumphalism has been relegated to history, out it pops again. The sight of Americans whooping it up now is not just provocative, it is a reminder of how little has been learnt during the past decade.

A gleeful attitude is as useful as an outsized SUV. It may give some fleeting gratification but a punitive cost is attached. While the White House has been measured, its lead has not been followed.

Fireworks in Los Angeles and street celebrations in other US cities over an assassination? Not just primitive, but foolishly incendiary. The same applies to the 'New York Daily Post' with its front page composed of just three words: "Rot in hell!"

Jingoistic Americans are posting dangerous comments online. Readers of the 'Los Angeles Times' have contributed the following nuggets of diplomacy on its website: "We should have smeared his body with pig fat before feeding it to cockroaches"; "I just wish we had a body to urinate on"; and "I would love to drag his stinking corpse through the streets of New York".

These words are reminiscent of the sub-human treatment meted out to four US men in the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004, when their dead bodies were mutilated by a mob, then dragged through the streets and hung from a bridge.

The US signalled its steadfastness by spending almost 10 years tracking down Bin Laden. But it dissipated some of the respect it earned by partying afterwards.

Less swagger and more solemnity would have been appropriate. Instead we had chants of "USA, USA!" and "Osama bin Gotten" placards.

Bin Laden came to represent the bogeyman incarnate to Americans. But he still deserved to be brought to trial.

That didn't happen, perhaps because of the fiasco characterising Saddam Hussein's execution, when mobile-phone footage of his hanging showed taunts hurled as the noose went round his neck.

The world doesn't feel like a safer place because Bin Laden is no longer alive. It certainly does not feel like a safer place after US citizens have caroused about it. The Islamic world will regard such behaviour as confrontational. And the situation will deteriorate further once that photograph of Bin Laden's corpse is released.

The White House has delayed, saying the photograph may be "inflammatory", although it seems inevitable that images will surface -- if not officially, then unofficially. But isn't it also inflammatory for US citizens to beat their drums quite so vigorously at his death?

Street celebrations in Washington and New York have been described as a spontaneous torrent of patriotism, but they could be interpreted as something rather more hysterical. I'm sure many more reflective Americans cringed at those images but a damaging message has gone across the world.

The assassination appears to be viewed as an endorsement of American military might and a definitive, overdue victory. Nevertheless, random terrorist attacks are now more likely.

No matter where we live, we will all be affected. Security staff need to get lucky every time -- a suicide bomber only has to get lucky once.

Americans defend their behaviour by pointing to jubilant outpourings in the Middle East after 9/11, but they seem to have forgotten how hurtful they found that vindictive response.

Later, Americans were infuriated by euphoric scenes at Tripoli airport after the Lockerbie bomber's release. The White House condemned the homecoming he received in Libya as "outrageous and disgusting" while Obama described it as "highly objectionable".

But why is public jubilation surrounding the death of your enemies acceptable in Time Square but not in Tripoli? Surely if it's barbaric in one country then it's equally unacceptable in another?

All but doing a conga in the streets after Bin Laden's death doesn't do justice to the American spirit. People such as Sheila O'Connor Langone are what the US was built on -- not a crowd egging each other on to chant "Ding dong Bin Laden is dead" outside the White House.

Irish Independent

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