Nearly 10 years ago, days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I drove home to the Washington, DC suburbs from Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was a long, long trip, some 28 hours of driving over two and 1/2 days, but an experience like no other. There was a special sense of community, of shared loss, of egalitarianism that pervaded the highways. Flags and signs hung from overpasses. Everyone listened to the same news alerts. People made eye contact at rest stops and restaurants, nodding knowingly about the inner rage, and determination, affecting the United States. In many ways, it was a highly spiritual experience and a unique time in this country.
Sunday’s special ops killing in Pakistan of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden — mastermind, symbol and financial underwriter of the Al Qaeda network — produced much of the same feelings. Twitter and social media were overwhelmed. Young people, who have never known a United States without its current national security state apparatus, celebrated in front of the White House. CNN and the other television news networks served as a place of gathering for Americans of all races, backgrounds and socio-economic status.
Bin Laden’s theory was that Western democracies are weak and thus that direct terrorist attacks would splinter the citizenry and end Western involvement in the Middle East. He got it entirely backwards. The reality is that 9/11 united the United States. We debate and fight about tactics, long-term strategy and effectiveness, but since that day no American can look at the massive hole of ground zero in Manhattan’s financial district, or the new granite walls of the Pentagon, without recalling where they were and how they felt on 9/11. That’s a legacy that has already outlasted bin Laden.
There’s another way in which bin Laden’s death has once again transformed this country from a nation of strangers to a shared community. This president, whose policies on healthcare, deficit reduction and the like are attacked from all sides, risked everything to get America’s most well-known terrorist enemy. If the operation had failed Obama would have been a crippled leader, like Jimmy Carter after the 1980 Iranian hostage rescue operation faltered in the desert sands, with re-election impossible. His was a balls-out call. For a Democrat, especially, to maintain secret, unilateral “black” intelligence operations in foreign countries has been all but anathema. Obama acted more like Ronald Reagan than either W. or Bush 41 ever did.
John Ullyot, a former Marine intelligence officer who served as a Republican spokesman on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the operation was “a gutsy call because so much could have gone wrong. The fact that Obama approved this mission instead of the safer option of bombing the compound was the right call militarily, but also a real roll of the dice politically because of how quickly it could have unraveled.”
No one is criticizing the decision to assassinate bin Laden. That in itself is simply amazing, another sign of the feelings of community pervading this country. They will not last, of course. But today we are once again all Americans.
One difference is that although worldwide support for American spiked after 9/11, it seems even Arabs and other Muslims have now largely abandoned the anti-Western Jihad mentality that bin Laden fostered. The revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Libya re not being driven by radical Shi’ite imams, rather by middle class tech executives and students. This year’s Arab Spring movement is secular and largely non-violent. American flags are not being burned and our government — massively out of character historically, and at long last — actually stood on the side of the protesters and against entrenched, repressive Arab governments. That’s another arrow in Al Qaeda’s coffin, and another way in which, in the instantly connected global community of today’s Earth, we really are all Americans.
Bin Laden was adept at convincing smaller, regional terrorist groups that allying with Al Qaeda and focusing on America were the best ways to topple corrupt regimes at home. But many of his supporters grew increasingly distressed by Al Qaeda’s attacks in the last few years — which have killed mostly Muslims — and came to realize that bin Laden had no long-term political program aside from nihilism and death.
The Arab Spring, during which ordinary people in countries like Tunisia and Egypt overthrew their governments, proved that contrary to Al Qaeda’s narrative, hated rulers could be toppled peacefully without attacking America. Indeed, protesters in many cases saw Washington supporting their efforts, further undermining Al Qaeda’s claims.