There was talk of closure in the hours after President Obama delivered the news that so many New Yorkers have been awaiting for nearly 10 years. But the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of a Navy Seal team brought back none of the nearly 3,000 lives that ended on Sept. 11, 2001. For those who knew and loved those men, women, and children, there is no such thing as closure. It is but a term tossed around by commentators and pop psychologists who believe that all narratives must have a tidy ending.
Of course they do not. For thousands of families in the New York metropolitan area, the narrative begun on 9/11 will have no ending, not even when all with living memories of those who died are gone. For they surely will have passed on the narrative to others, to those who were not even born when those airplanes hit the towers. Fifty years from now, graying, middle-aged people will talk about an uncle or cousin, grandmother or family friend, whose life was cut short on a sunny morning in New York at the dawn of the 21st century.
Osama bin Laden inflicted unending grief, a lifetime of mourning, upon a city that symbolized so much of what he hated-modernity, secularism, commercialism, inquiry. His death wiped away exactly nothing. The World Trade Center is a construction site now rather than a terrible pile of toxic debris, but it is a construction site all the same. The towers are gone and, like the lives lost on that day, they will not return.
The man responsible for all that grief is dead now. And as Winston Churchill said on V-E Day nearly 70 years ago this month, we may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing. The poet John Donne said any death diminished him and us, but we surely are not obliged to feel the same way about a man who literally lived for death. Public displays of joy over bin Laden’s death in Times Square or at ground zero may appear unseemly to some, but who would have counseled discretion decades ago when news of Hitler’s demise became public?
Churchill, on that notable day so rapidly fading from memory, went on to remind Britain and the U.S. alike that struggle and sacrifice would continue. And so it will today, tomorrow and perhaps for years to come. Islamic extremism has lost its symbolic leader, but intelligence experts remind us that there are thousands of fanatics around the globe willing to act on bin Laden’s call for holy war on the United States, on Israel, on Europe-on modern life itself.
What bin Laden’s death shows us, and our self-proclaimed enemies, is that the United States remains determined, capable and dangerous. They might have persuaded themselves otherwise in recent years as our economy struggled and we turned on each other, snarling and sneering at our fellow citizens who disagreed with us about issues that suddenly seem mighty small. But if they doubted not just our resolve but our competence as well, they now have reason to fear the unforgiving determination of an outraged people.
The raid on bin Laden succeeded because of superb intelligence, tremendous courage, proper planning and decisive implementation. From the White House to the troops on the ground, those involved demonstrated to those who would do us harm that they can never rest easy, that they cannot hide for very long, that they cannot trust anybody and that the next sound they hear-a burst of fire from an automatic weapon, the crash of a missile finding its mark-may be their last.
For the United States, the raid’s success contains a few practical lessons in the terrible calculus of defending civilians from fanatics who live for death. Crucial information was obtained from prisoners in Guantánamo Bay, the holding pen for terrorists captured abroad. Bad things-disgraceful things-have taken place in Gitmo. But the world is a dangerous place, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed, and it is astonishing to realize how often people need to be reminded of that simple fact. The U.S. has acknowledged the excesses of Gitmo, but critics, too, must acknowledge that information gathered there may have kept us safer. With bin Laden dead, the Obama White House must decide if Gitmo has served its purpose. Prisoners there very likely have little to tell us about homegrown extremism, or about plots drawn up in recent years by terrorists in Yemen, Somalia and other places where fanaticism has taken hold.
The diffusion of Islamic terror reminds us that we may have given powers to bin Laden that he only wished he possessed. He was the driving force behind 9/11, but in the years since, his main role was symbolic. The terrorists who put bombs in their shoes and their underwear were not acting on bin Laden’s orders.
But they were, surely, acting on the ideology he came to represent and the vision he articulated. The bullet that smashed into bin Laden’s skull did not kill the ideology of hatred or the twisted vision of a world with room only for fundamentalism. But it did kill the man who financed that ideology and was the foremost articulator of that vision. And that surely is a victory for all of us. Regardless of our views, regardless of how we vote, regardless of our opinions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are the enemies of that ideology and vision, and of those who will continue to follow bin Laden and who must then share his fate. The New York of security sweeps and of terror alerts and of special precautions in public spaces will not and cannot go away. They are bin Laden’s legacy, reminders that the terror he introduced on 9/11 cannot be wiped out in a missile strike or a midnight raid. We, then, must continue to live with inconvenience, remembering that it is small price to pay for vigilance. Sadly, we continue to live in a world bin Laden introduced to us on 9/11. But he is dead, while we simply take off our shoes before boarding an airplane. His followers continue to dwell on death while we pursue life. He hated us and believed he had the power to destroy us. He was wrong, and so died a failure.