Bin Laden’s Decade Ends With A Whimper

May 11th, 2011

Like a lot of Americans, I had a little more spring in my step on Monday with last Sunday’s news that justice was finally served to Osama bin Laden at the hands of an elite SEAL team.

It seemed surreal, but it was some of the best news that this country has heard in a long time.

Ten years can go by quickly in this life and September 11, 2001 sometimes seems not so long ago. But watching the college kids celebrate in front of the White House I was reminded that they were 8, 9, 10 years old when the Towers went down and that they had lived most of their conscious life in the post 9-11 world.

There has been a lot of water under the bridge since then, but 9-11 shaped most of America’s history for the past decade. Two months after 9-11, we launched the War in Afghanistan and it now ranks as our nation’s longest war. Even the best case scenarios envision us fighting there for years and maintaining a presence for even longer.

Mere months after the War in Afghanistan began, Bush Administration officials had pivoted and were already using 9-11 as justification for an invasion of Iraq. Just over a year after the Afghan war began,  in a vote held just before the mid-term elections, the US Congress voted to give the president the authority to invade Iraq. In March 2003 we invaded Iraq and the rest (as they say) is history.

Both wars looked like easy victories for the country, but as the insurgencies in each country dragged on, the wars bogged us down, sapped our collective energy and drained the Treasury of over a trillion dollars. Meanwhile, the specter of bin Laden hung above our heads, taunting us via video from some shadowy undisclosed location. Despite our 12 aircraft carriers stationed around the globe, we still couldn’t find the man who knocked down the towers with 11 men armed with box-cutters.

Last Sunday’s raid put all of that to an end.  To be sure, we still need to maintain our vigilance as a country and there will almost certainly be more attacks in the future. Bin Laden may be dead, but Bin Ladenism survives, as do the splinter groups of Al Qaeda. But it seems like a large weight has been lifted. The circle has been closed and justice has been served.  

The day after the raid that killed bin Laden, I watched Richard Engel being interviewed from Benghazi and he commented on the coverage he had been watching on Arab satellite TV. He said that, while the headline news story on Arab TV was the death of bin Laden, as the day wore on, the stations began to talk more about the “new core issues” of the revolution in Egypt, the revolution in Tunisia, the uprising in Syria and the war in Libya

There was almost a sense that bin Laden was a man of the past decade, and a lot of people in the Middle East want to put him behind them…. people wanted to focus on what really will matter for the future of the region going forward for the next ten years, and that is these uprisings.

Bin Laden dreamed of establishing a caliphate governed by Islamic law that would stretch from Spain to Afghanistan. But if the events of the past few months are any indication, the muslim world will be looking more to the freedom and liberty that those of us in the West cherish than to the fanaticism and strict religious rule of Sharia law that Osama bin Laden offered.

The sense that bin Laden was a figure of the past decade was mirrored here in the United States. I remember where I was when I watched George W. Bush’s “bullhorn moment” at Ground Zero and I remember thinking that I was watching something critical in American history. When Bush responded to a firefighter who had yelled that he couldn’t hear him, Bush yelled back into the bullhorn:

I can hear you. The people of the world hear you…And the people who knocked down these buildings are going to hear all of us soon.

It was raw. It was tribal. It was cathartic. It was one of the most iconic moments of George W. Bush’s presidency. 

Similarly, Rudy Giuliani also inspired America with his resolution, moral certainty and competence in the face of crisis.

Years later, the image of Bush at Ground Zero was replaced in the American psyche with one of him landing on an aircraft carrier in a ridiculous flight suit and making his “Mission Accomplished” speech. His leadership after 9-11 was tainted by using it as a pretext to invade Iraq. Similarly, the memories of Giuliani’s bold leadership were replaced with the equally strong sense of political opportunism that Joe Biden famously characterized as “a noun, a verb and 9-11.”

As I watched President Obama escorted by Mayor Giuliani to a firehouse in New York, I was struck by the sense in which bin Laden, Rudy Giuliani and George W. Bush were, in many ways, men who defined the past decade.

The ethereal terrorist in fatigues and turban who haunted our national conversation for the past ten years is gone. Our last image of him is not as a menacing terrorist, but a hunched over old man watching videotapes of himself on a tiny TV.

An era is ended and a new era begins.

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3 Responses to “Bin Laden’s Decade Ends With A Whimper”

  1. gizella Says:

    The more I think about this, the less sure I am of my feelings. Why couldn’t we bring him to trial (I know, where would that happen, where would we put him in the meantime…)? I feel like killing him outright instead of capturing him and putting him on trial, makes me feel like we’ve regressed instead. I am ashamed….I mean, the Nazis were put on trial. Assassination is a weird sort of justice.

  2. Milazz Says:

    Hey Giz,

    Thanks for checking the site out every once in a while.

    Have to say that I don’t share your sense of ambivalence (or shame). I realized this week that I have never celebrated someone dying before….But I celebrated last week.

    Assasination is a weird sort of justice, but I’d rather have him dead than at Gitmo…and in a military tribunal…and then put to death by us…

    I’ve kicked this around in my head a bit but it’s not even close for me.

    I think we did the right thing.

  3. Gizella Says:

    I check it out all the time, I don’t always have a comment. I have European family, another talk for another time, but discussing this event with them really made me doubt some of my feelings. My initial reaction was one of relief…but I now I think its really uncivilized. When does a criminal become so bad that we subvert the system, deciding the world is just a better place without this person, and no we aren’t going to mess around with giving him his say?