Surprise. My first and strongest reaction was surprise when I saw on TV last night that Osama bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan: after all this time—almost ten years since the September 11 attacks—I was surprised that the leader of Al Qaeda had been caught and disposed of. Pleased at the news, yes, but a little startled: oh yeah, that’s still going on.
It’s not that I wasn’t confident that the American military and intelligence machine could do it, but like many (if not most) Americans I don’t give much regular or serious thought to the pursuit of terrorists, and that’s a shame because there are still thousands of American soldiers, sailors and Marines deployed on the other side of the world doing exactly that every single day and night. Finding Bin Laden and defeating Al Qaeda was the reason we went to war in Afghanistan in the first place, remember? But apart from changes in airport security, most Americans aren’t still impacted in their daily lives. Plenty of people are—those troops, military families, survivors of victims of terrorism—but most of us are not.
Although we could be any time now: the experts on these terrorists expect the killing of Bin Laden to spark new attacks on the U.S. or on American targets around the world out of vengeance, and our government has raised the alert level at military bases and issued travel advisories for Americans around the world. That makes sense: crazy religious zealots aren’t likely to just shrug off the death of their inspirational leader at the hands of the Great Satan and go on about their misdirected lives. We shall see what happens.
Meanwhile, I’m not feeling the euphoria and glee I’m seeing in the video of the crowds in Lower Manhattan and outside the White House and elsewhere. Punishing Bin Laden—with extreme prejudice—can’t help but be a good thing, but it’s not a happy ending, or even an ending at all, like VE Day or the surrender at Appomattox. President Obama was right when he said “Today we are reminded that as a nation there’s nothing we can’t do when we put our shoulders to the wheel, when we remember the sense of unity that defines us as Americans.” But so was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “Even as we mark this milestone, we should not forget that the battle to stop Al Qaeda and its syndicate of terror will not end with the death of Bin Laden.”
Or maybe ever. And as people with short attention spans, who usually demonstrate a severe lack of patience for all but the quick and simple answer to every question, we’d do ourselves a favor by being realistic about what this news means for our future. We won a battle, but the war goes on.