What's the fuss over Angela Merkel's bin Laden comment?

The German chancellor said she was 'pleased' about Osama bin Laden's death. In Germany, bold political language is rare – a lasting legacy of Germany’s violent past.

Michaela Rehle/Reuters
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives at the 36th German Cities Council in Stuttgart, Germany, in this May 4 photo.

“I am pleased that we managed to kill bin Laden.”

That was German Chancellor Angela Merkel's response to a reporter's question about her reaction to Osama bin Laden's death. It wasn't a unique sentiment. Leaders around the world said the same thing.

But criticism over Mrs. Merkel's comments in Germany is almost overshadowing news of the raid that killed Mr. bin Laden.

“These are revenge fantasies one shouldn’t indulge in. That’s the Middle Ages,” said Siegfried Kauder, a member of Merkel’s Christian Democrats and chairman of the parliament’s legal affairs committee.

The deputy floor leader of the Christian Democrats, Ingrid Fischbach, called it inappropriate for a Christian to express joy at a premeditated killing of a fellow human. And Hartfried Wolff, legal spokesman for the Free Democrats, Merkel’s coalition partners in government, agreed: “I just cannot take any joy out of someone else’s death.”

Those are her political friends. Her foes want her to explain her comments in parliament and the Green politician Katrin Goering-Eckhardt, vice president of the Bundestag, said: “Killing a person is no reason to celebrate.”

Almost everyone in mainstream German politics has expressed relief about bin Laden's death, but the celebrations in the US were watched with much bafflement here. In Germany, politicians are typically loath to use emotionally charged language or utter politically inflammatory language – a lasting legacy of Germany’s violent past.

What's more, Germans have largely mistrusted America's post-9/11 foreign policy. While Germans felt solidarity and compassion for the US after the 2001 attacks, those feelings were soon replaced with a rejection of what many saw as President George W. Bush’s gung-ho approach to dealing with Islamic militants. Secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe and extraordinary renditions didn’t help to win Germans over.

And so, amid the relief about the death of the Al Qaeda leader, it did not take long for influential voices to ask questions about the legality of his killing, and to be heard. Most prominent among them: Helmut Schmidt, former German chancellor and the elder statesman in German politics. He did understand the Americans’ feelings of triumph, he said in a televised interview, but bin Laden’s killing was clearly a violation of international law.

Government spokesman Steffen Seibert on Wednesday tried to dispel the criticism of Merkel. He said her words should be seen in context and were meant to convey her joy that the world would be safer without the top terrorist.

She does have her supporters, too. Wolfgang Bosbach, an influential Christian Democrat who heads the home affairs committee in parliament, said it was “perfectly alright to be pleased about the success of the Americans to stop a mass murderer from going about his bloody business.”

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