David Greenberg, a contributing editor to The New Republic, teaches history at Rutgers University.
Give President Obama credit. As he promised in a bit of florid campaign rhetoric, he followed Osama bin Laden to the cave where he lives — in this case a high-walled compound of steel and concrete not far from the capital of Pakistan.
Characteristically restrained and innately cautious, Obama was quick to note in his remarks Sunday night that the death of bin Laden "does not mark the end of our effort" against the al-Qaida' terrorism network he led. Here the president's prudence served him well. We won't know for a long time whether this moment will mark the beginning of the end of the war on Islamist terrorism; that will depend on the current state of al-Qaida's strength — its wealth, numbers, organizational capabilities and other information that most of us have long since ceased paying attention to with any regularity. It's tempting to believe that decapitating the beast of al-Qaida' will weaken it forever, or render it lifeless. But we just don't know.
Even if bin Laden's death doesn't operationally cripple his network, though, it's deeply significant in its own right. We understand our history in stories, and bin Laden was always the central protagonist of the story of Sept. 11. It may be that we personalize our history too much, that our instinct to focus on individual heroes and villains sometimes distorts our understanding and simplifies complex realities. But personalize it we do, and there could be no satisfying resolution to our story without bin Laden's death or capture.
Indeed, it was in late 2001, when bin Laden eluded American fighters in Tora Bora, that the narrative of swift justice that we were writing for ourselves began to go awry. From there, without finishing the job, we siphoned resources away from the Afghanistan campaign and into Iraq. Over the next several years, the war on terrorism at home would notch many notable if insufficiently appreciated successes. Law-enforcement officials thwarted attacks, broke up cells, captured plotters, picked off killers. But in part because bin Laden was still at large, these stories were greeted with too much media-fed fear — this attack was stopped, but what about the next one? — and too little of the respect and sober applause they deserved.
Worse, running alongside those successes was a string of errors, failures, and even catastrophes. The biggest were those in the occupation of Iraq, in the collapse of nation-building and backsliding in Afghanistan, and in the forsaking of sacred liberties at home — including the institutionalized policies of torture, now mercifully discontinued, and of imprisoning men forever without trial, now shamefully approved and continued by a Democratic administration.
Technically, this tragic course of events would probably still have unfolded even had bin Laden been caught as soon as George W. Bush pasted his Dead-or-Alive poster on the saloon wall. Symbolically, however, bin Laden's survival accentuated the bitterness of each blunder and heightened the regret of each mistake. Even as he fell out of the headlines, he remained at the center of the story and fixed in our consciousness. His specter somehow loomed over all that seemed to go wrong in the last decade.
The ebullient hoards spontaneously gathering tonight at the White House and Ground Zero and Times Square look like the crowds that gather after a war is won. None has been. But these joyous Americans are recapturing a feeling that we lost nearly 10 years ago along with bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora — a feeling that America was in the process, however haltingly, of prosecuting justice after a terrible blow. The twisted, tragic sequence of events that Osama bin Laden set into motion on Sept. 11, 2001 can never be undone, but, as President Obama told the world Sunday night, there is no denying that, at long last, "justice has been done."