Jacob Heilbrunn

British Intellectuals Are Defending Osama bin Laden

 British historian Andrew Roberts, one of the most conservative of his generation, has a column in the Wall Street Journal blasting his brethren for their timidity in facing up to al-Qaeda. Roberts chronicles his countrymen's reaction to the killing of Osama bin Laden, which is to say their anger at America for polishing off the would-be Mr. Big of international terrorism. In an inversion of reality, they seem to view bin Laden as a victim of American imperialism. Obama has become the new swaggering George W. Bush, carrying out rough frontier justice rather than abiding by the niceties of international law.

Britons are, of course, not unique. Castigating America? It's a European phenomenon. It endows the castigator with moral superiority over those primitive, bumptious Yanks. But the quotes that Roberts provides from a recent BBC show are certainly eyebrow-raising:

 

Another panelist, the writer Yasmin Alibhai Brown, was applauded when she said she was "depressed" by the killing, as it "demeans a democracy and a president who has shown himself to be the Ugly American. He's degraded American democracy, which had already degraded itself through torture and rendition." The former Liberal Party leader Paddy Ashdown was then cheered when he said: "I cannot rejoice on the killing of any man. I belong to a country that is founded on the principle of exercise of due process of law," as though the United States was founded on some other idea.

 

Roberts says he's profoundly ashamed of his fellow Britons. But however emotionally satisfying this caterwauling about American iniquities may be, does it amount to anything significant? Is it a sign that the British are afraid of terrorists? The problem with this line of argument is that Prime Minister David Cameron plunged John Bull into war in Libya. There is no real sign that Britian is turning pacifist. In Germany, by contrast, foreign intervention is deeply unpopular. Chancellor Angela Merkel was upbraided—even has seen a criminal lawsuit filed against her by a Hamburg judge for allegedly promoting "homicide" by expressing her gratitude for the elimination of bin Laden—by members of her own political party.

Nothing of the kind is occurring in Britain. The era of rule Britannia may have gone by the boards, but the swan's nest in an English lake, as Shakespeare put it, remains a stalwart ally of America. Whether it made the right decision to intervene in Libya is another matter. But there is no cogent reason to believe that the nattering of a few left-wing intellectuals is anything new. Once upon a time a goodly number of British intellectuals as well as the Dean of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson, praised Stalin, a bizarre phenomenon that the scholar Paul Hollander chronicled in his book Political Pilgrims. Why should it be surprising that they are now engaging in special pleading on behalf of bin Laden?