The spontaneous flag-waving crowds that gathered outside the White House, cheering and singing the national anthem and “God Bless America” were a small symbol of the emotional relief that swept across the country as the news broke late in the evening.
Bin Laden’s death will not end the threat posed by al-Qaeda to the United States and other parts of the world. But the demise of the person most responsible for the attacks on Sept. 11, which killed about 3,000 people represents a major psychological setback to the terrorist organization and a sizable boost for the president and the country.
“Justice has been done,” the president said in a nationally televised statement to the nation.
There have been other victories over the past decade as U.S. intelligence officials have pursued and killed other top members of the al-Qaeda organization. But nothing compares in significance to the declaration Obama was able to make Sunday night. As the president put it, the killing of bin Laden marks “the most significant achievement to date in our efforts to defeat al-Qaeda.”
Bin Laden came to symbolize the insidious threat of non-state terrorism that has been a defining feature of the 21st century. The attacks that leveled the World Trade Center, demolished a portion of the Pentagon and that killed more people when another hijacked plane crashed in western Pennsylvania reshaped the daily lives of all Americans, symbolized by heightened security at every airport and the huge homeland security network that has been built over the past decade.
That won’t change with bin Laden’s death, as the threat of terrorist attack, from al-Qaeda and its offshoots, remains strong. But it will underscore the reality of the commitment of this administration, as with the administration of former president George W. Bush, to try to hunt down and kill those responsible.
Bush put down the marker not long after the Sept. 11 attacks, saying he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive.” That was taken as a sign of cowboy swagger by a Texan president by some of his critics, but it was a reflection of the absolute importance that he and much of the nation attached to bringing to justice the man responsible for the worst terrorist attack on the homeland in the history of the nation.
The terrorist leader was nearly captured in Afghanistan early in the war there but managed to slip away. For years, he reappeared through video tapes or recordings, taunting the United States and issuing new threats, only to slip away again to the dismay and frustration of U.S. officials.