AUTHOREmma Kelsey Originally from Saratoga, California, Emma Kelsey graduated from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service in 2012 with an International Politics major. She spent the spring 2011 semester in Madrid, Spain, where she wrote for the Berkley Center's...
March 20, 2011
May 12, 2011
The Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) connects Georgetown students studying abroad in a variety of cultures. Students share reflections on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries, commenting on topics ranging from religious freedom and interfaith dialogue to secularization, globalization, democracy, and economics.
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Emma Kelsey on Catholicism and Pacifism in Spain
May 12, 2011 | 2 COMMENTS
Here in Spain, the other Georgetown students and I have been told by our classmates how surprised they are that we are open-minded and not ignorant or blindly patriotic as they expected. In Spain, Americans are often thought of as aggressive, domineering, and patriotic to a fault, and reading these statuses I almost felt that this reputation was deserved. On the cover of the New York Times website was a picture of a Hoya in front of the White House cheering with the crowds. I didn’t know what to make of the situation, but running to the white house to cheer seemed a wholly inappropriate reaction.
Days later in my Política Exterior de España class, I was confronted with a very distinct reaction to the events that had taken place. In a different vein, when asked about their opinions on bin Laden’s death, the Spanish and Erasmus students were not celebrating at all. Rather, they were questioning whether he was actually dead and why the United States was so quiet on the issue and the news reports so muddled.
I was surprised to see the extent of their distrust of both American politicians and international news outlets. They also questioned what it would mean for international security and future threats both to America and to their respective countries, and the moral implications of such a move. The one point that was stressed the most was that the killing of bin Laden was a clear violation of international law. It was shocking to compare the “mission accomplished” reactions of my friends at home to the complete disapproval of my Spanish classmates (though a few did see it as a step forward).
This juxtaposition of American jubilation and Spanish inquietude underscored the differences in values that I have observed since I arrived. One friend, a Georgetown grad, shared a quote that seemed more similar to the Spanish line of thought and particularly spoke to me. The Vatican had responded to bin Laden’s death saying, “In front of the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices but rather reflects on the grave responsibility of each one in front of God and men, and hopes and commits himself so that every moment not be an occasion for hatred to grow but for peace.”
While Spain is no longer strongly Catholic, I do think that Catholic values still shape the national character and morals. It may not be a religious country at the present, but perhaps the religious tradition is what drives the Spanish value for human life. Not only is this value expressed in the reticence of Spaniards to celebrate a death, even that of a terrorist, but also in their vehement opposition to the death penalty and their denouncement of torture. The “dignity of human life,” is something I rarely hear spoken of in America, even as an (occasionally) practicing Catholic. When this principle of Catholic Social Teaching is brought up, it’s usually in reference to abortion, not to issues such as torture, capital punishment, or war. Here in Spain, human life of all forms is fiercely protected.
Or perhaps it is not religion, but rather Spain’s own history of fascism, terrorism, war, and violence that makes my Spanish classmates question the killing of bin Laden. Spain is, by and large, much more pacifistic than the United States. There is no right to bear arms as there is in the US, and a single incidence of assault or police brutality is much bigger news here in Spain than it would be in DC. After devastating wars and years under Franco’s dictatorship, Spain’s bloody past serves as a reminder to avoid violence.
In contrast, no recent war has taken place on American soil. Removed from the crude reality of war, Americans seem quick to jump on the bandwagon of patriotism without thinking through the implications of such a moment. One (albeit significant) triumph in a long war cannot undo the thousands of lives sacrificed on both sides, nor bring justice to the victims. The Papal response reminds us that rather than fight for a victory at any cost, we should fight for peace.
COMMENT FROM BEN JOHNSON JUNE 6, 2011
I really enjoyed your post, both for what it said about Spain as well as the United States. When I heard about bin Laden’s death and saw the pictures of Hoyas celebrating down in front of the White House, I had the same reaction as you. bin Laden was without a doubt a monster, and one of the few people in history who have come to embody evil for all Americans, but gloating over the death of anyone—even our most hated enemy—simply lowers us to the level of the people we’re fighting, and cheapens our own morals. We can be glad justice was served without throwing a block-party to celebrate it. bin Laden’s death should have been a moment for reflecting back on those who lost their lives on 9/11, and not a time for jingoistic bluster.
That being said, I have no doubt that watching the events from abroad cast them in a very different light than being in the U.S. (especially in DC, where the environment is naturally patriotic). Thousands of miles away, it’s much easier to look at the situation objectively, and to take the sheer, raw emotion out of the equation. Whatever I’d like to think my own feelings are about the appropriate way to mark his death, I’m sure that if I had been in Washington at the time of the announcement, I would have reacted very differently.
Instead, I was in the Arabian Peninsula when it happened—not the place where you take to the streets to celebrate the death of a Saudi Islamic fundamentalist. Many of the students at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar are from various parts of the Muslim world, and I was curious to hear what they had to say about bin Laden’s death. Interestingly, most of the non-American students I talked with had the exact same reaction as your Spanish classmates: they questioned whether he was actually dead, whether there was some kind of conspiracy underfoot. These students weren’t anti-American in the slightest, but I was surprised to see the degree of mistrust with which they view the United States. It just goes to show that suspicion aimed towards the U.S. government isn’t limited to one geographic region or to Muslims or Catholics; it’s common the world over.
COMMENT FROM SARAH SEALOCK JULY 19, 2011
Thank you for addressing this issue. From my computer in Doha at the School of Foreign Service in Qatar I saw news of Osama bin Laden’s death followed by comments from both friends in DC and in Doha, some jubilant and others appalled by the reactions of their fellow school mates. Most memorable was the moment my Tunisian roommate, a fellow Georgetown student, saw a photo of a joyous college student, celebrating OBL’s death in front of the White House while wearing her Georgetown tee-shirt. A young woman who had grown up in the Middle East and who understood the meaning of violence upon human life much more than most Americans was simply horrified to be in any way associated with this American girl.
Like your classmates in Spain, many students in Doha were unsure about whether or not to believe American reports. Some told me they believed that the U.S. had killed bin Laden long ago, but had waited until the most promising political moment to tell the public. Others believed that the US had not found bin Laden at all, but was simply making up the event in order to save face. I was not very surprised by this reaction. Many of these students had grown up under authoritarian regimes that did not allow freedom of expression and consistently lied to their people, and with such scant information even I found myself a bit skeptical.
What was surprising was the reaction so many of my fellow students had to the feverish nationalism released throughout the US after Obama’s announcement of bin Laden’s demise. While many celebrated the terrorist’s death with joy in the States, many in Doha were shocked and disgusted by the bloodlust being displayed. Even for those inclined to believe he actually had been killed, the mood surrounding the death was a mix of relief and solemn pity. Though certainly no one pitied the man himself, many I spoke to would remark about how tragic the suffering had been for those whose lives were taken by his fanaticism. The focus in Qatar remained on what I had always considered the point of the “War on Terror” and the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the victims of hate. Instead, back in Washington it seemed that many of my American colleagues had become too consumed with a hate that smacked with xenophobia to either question the situation or remember to honor the dead.