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Robert O’Neill, former US Navy SEAL and public speaker, was awarded honorary lifetime membership of UCD’s Law Society at an event on Wednesday 25th November. O’Neill, who is most well known for his claims that he shot Osama Bin Laden, made a speech to around 300 students about his experience in the military.
The focus of O’Neill’s 35 minute address to students was that there is never “a perfect plan”. He recounted his experience of how he became a Navy SEAL and touched on the difficulty of working in the military, stressing that his 17 years there were both rewarding and challenging. Besides the physical challenges, he said that the hardest part of working as a Navy SEAL was having to leave his children to go to war.
During the talk and the subsequent question and answer session, O’Neill said that he tries not to talk about his experience of having shot Bin Laden publicly. He was asked about the experience by students, and explained that he has a number of reasons for declining to speak about it, but said that he originally told the story for closure.
When O’Neill went public with his story of having shot Bin Laden, there were criticisms from some Navy SEALs, saying that revealing his involvement went against their ethos.
Speaking exclusively to the University Observer, O’Neill noted these criticisms. “It all depends. If someone had a role in it or was with me, I respect their opinion. If they weren’t there I don’t care what they say. There’s naysayers everywhere, and they can say what they want.”
“I never thought it would be me, and then all of a sudden it was. And I realised right then and there, I remember thinking, ‘this is the best thing I’ve ever done and the worst thing I’ve ever done.’”
O’Neill also told the University Observer that his involvement in the shooting of Bin Laden changed his life in many ways, for both the good and the bad. “It changed my life the second it happened,” he said. “I never thought it would be me, and then all of a sudden it was. And I realised right then and there, I remember thinking, ‘this is the best thing I’ve ever done and the worst thing I’ve ever done’. So far it’s been the best because I’m able to help 9/11 survivors, 9/11 victims, family members, with the healing process of the worst nightmare anyone can imagine. And as far as the worst, I was a nobody, I didn’t have to worry about the threat… But you know, I’ve assumed risk before, and it was worth it, and it is this time too if I can help just one family deal with the healing process.”
With the recent spate of terrorist attacks in France and the continued unrest across the world, O’Neill has been named as a target by some members of the terrorist group ISIS. He explained to the University Observer that he tries not to worry for his safety. “No, everyone’s a target from ISIS,” he said. “Those are just a couple of people spouting out stuff that they think they know, information that they think that they have. I personally think they’re looking for the grand attack that we saw in Paris, gun free zones, major casualties. As far as myself, I was a Navy SEAL for 17 years. I know about safety, I have stuff in place, I don’t discuss it but it’s there.”
O’Neill left the Navy in 2012 after 17 years of service. While he no longer works for the US military, he was quick to explain the pride he feels at the work of the military. “I’m most proud of the men and women from the coalition forces that defend all of us, and myself included right now. I’m three years away from it, but I know they’re out there right now, people with much more dangerous jobs than I have. They’re the ones that show up when the bad guys show up, and they’re going to defend us, so I’m proud of every man and woman that puts on the uniform from every country fighting on the good guys’ side.”
Since the terrorist attacks in France, O’Neill has been vocal on Twitter about terrorism. During the question and answer session after his address at UCD, one student asked him about a particular tweet where he referenced the Islamic tradition of not eating pork. O’Neill responded, “I have this thing for bacon, I always post bacon stuff, like if God didn’t want us to eat pigs then he wouldn’t have made them out of bacon. There are more bacon jokes, tongue in cheek. I’ve dealt with suicide bombers before, they’re generally a lot of people who don’t eat bacon.”
He has faced criticism for some of his comments on the attacks and on terrorism in general. He responded to some of these claims on Twitter recently, saying: “I’ve been called ‘racist’ and a ‘faux’ News contributor lately. Must mean I said something accurate.” When the student who asked the question asked him if he saw how his remarks could be seen as offensive, O’Neill accepted that they could be seen as offensive, but also said, “It’s a Twitter feed, I’m not trying to offend anybody”.
When speaking to the University Observer, however, O’Neill stressed that the problem with terrorism was a complicated one that couldn’t be resolved in any one way. “Well it’s a problem that can’t be solved militarily alone, it’s a problem that needs to be solved I think with truth and education. There will need to be some military force, something needs to be done about the military fighting age of males in Syria and around, but the rest of them, you know, at some point, we have to stop killing each other. Maybe we’re all wrong and maybe we’re all right, and we just don’t realise it. People just need to be smart, start telling the truth to each other, and realising that you know, why people are doing bad stuff, what their reasons are and how can we solve it.”
In the wake of the threats made by ISIS, and his status as a high profile figure at risk, there was heightened security in the Newman Building in UCD where the talk took place. Every student that was admitted to the hall was scanned by security. There was also a Gardaí presence. Students were queuing from before 6pm for the talk which was scheduled to begin at 6.30pm, but ultimately started just after 7pm, due to the extensive security checks that had to be completed before commencement.
Last week, UCD’s Law Society encountered controversy when they marketed their event on Facebook. The society set up an event page which was the subject of much debate from both students and members of the public from outside UCD. The event page – which was titled ‘The Man who shot Bin Laden’ – was eventually removed.
Additional reporting by Gráinne Loughran