Ten years, two wars, and countless false starts and wrong turns after the most terrible criminal act ever committed on American soil, the man responsible for nearly 3,000 deaths on Sept. 11, 2001, has been killed. It is unlikely that ever before in history have so many resources been committed to bringing one man to justice, and on Sunday, with a deadly precise raid on a compound deep within Pakistan, a group of Navy SEALs acting after years of work by the entire American intelligence community, erased years of failure and changed the face of the war on terrorism.
Upon the news of Osama bin Laden's death, crowds gathered outside the White House, on the site of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, and elsewhere, chanting "USA! USA!" and singing "Na na hey hey kiss him goodbye." President Obama gave an address in the East Room of the White House late Sunday night in which he said, "today's achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people. … Tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it's the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place."
The moment was indeed historic, but it was not a time for jubilation. The president's words made it sound as if killing bin Laden was a testament to America's can-do spirit on par with the completion of the transcontinental railroad or the moon landing. This was not a triumph of America, or a credit to the glory of mankind. It was a grim but necessary piece of business, one that does not begin to erase all the evil done by bin Laden or those who killed in his name. But for the sake of the families of the thousands he killed on Sept. 11, in the embassy bombings in Africa, the attack on the USS Cole, and in other acts of terrorism throughout the West and the Muslim world, it had to be done. For the sake of the civilization he sought to destroy, it had to be done.
Does it make us safer? In the short term, perhaps not. American embassies around the world are on alert for retaliatory attacks, and the State Department has issued travel advisories urging Americans abroad to exercise caution. And even in the long term, it's unclear how much the death of bin Laden will disrupt Al-Qaida's ability to carry out terrorist strikes. His isolation has surely diminished his ability to act as more than a figurehead for the organization, and in any case, he has deputies ready to take his mantle. The kind of centralized planning and training of terrorists from a safe haven that characterized Al-Qaida before Sept. 11 has long been disrupted by the efforts of the Bush and Obama administrations and our allies, and instead, the organization has morphed into a set of semi-autonomous regional affiliates.
Bin Laden's death may make them less effective — he was a charismatic leader whose iconic status helped hold together groups with differing agendas. It was his connections to the Persian Gulf region that supplied Al-Qaida with much of its funding. And overall, it was his vision for attacking the West as a means to destabilize what he saw as corrupt regimes in the Middle East that gave Al-Qaida its purpose and made it attractive for the angry and disaffected. How successfully his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, will be at maintaining the organization's relevance in a time when millions of people across the Arab world are choosing a different — and vastly more effective — path to protest their repressive leaders remains to be seen.
The importance of bin Laden's death is largely symbolic, though the value of such symbolism should not be discounted. It is restorative to the spirit of the United States and its allies and deflating to those who would do us harm.
Ten years after Sept. 11, the failure to capture or kill bin Laden was the most potent reminder of the limitations and failures of our war on terrorism. Our inability to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan, our disastrously mistaken search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and our inability to devise a just means for detaining, interrogating and trying terrorism suspects all contributed to a sense of powerlessness and decline of which the continued ability of one man to evade and defy us served as a focal point. At a crucial moment, when troops are set to withdraw from Iraq and when we face the springtime resumption of fighting by the Taliban in Afghanistan, bin Laden's death demonstrates to our nation, our armed forces and our allies that we retain the power to do what we set out to do.
Until now, Al-Qaida and those who would join it could look upon bin Laden's survival as the ultimate sign of our weakness. But no more. Between our increasingly deadly Predator drone strikes, the ability of our intelligence services to unlock the most closely guarded secret of our enemies and the precision with which our military conducted this operation, there can be no doubt of our determination or our might. We have sent the message that if you do us harm, we will find you, and we will not let our deaths go unavenged.
This will not mark the end of our struggle against terrorists or Islamic extremists. It may only deepen the complications of our relationships with Afghanistan and Pakistan, where bin Laden was all but hiding in plain sight. As tempting as it is to say that with this killing — by coincidence, on the eighth anniversary of President Bush's photo-op on an aircraft carrier — our real mission is finally accomplished, the work of safeguarding Americans from those who have pledged their lives to our destruction continues unchanged. This singular moment for President Obama recasts a foreign policy that has looked at times muddled and indecisive during this Arab Spring, but it does not bring him answers for how to bring resolution to the conflict in Libya, how to respond to the bloody crackdowns in Syria or how to rekindle the increasingly remote prospects for peace in Israel.
Nonetheless, this event brings a sense of closure, however imperfect, that we have been missing for 10 long years. Bin Laden tore a horrible wound into American life, and his death, at our hands, will finally allow the scars of that darkest of days to fade.