The killing of Osama bin Laden was a tour de force of American ingenuity and might, but it's also something more: the overdue exorcism of a persistent demon lodged in the national psyche -- and a powerful reminder of our success in a fight too many people seem to think we are losing.
The dispatch of bin Laden won't vanquish al-Qaida, the terrorist organization he led. But decapitating the many-tentacled monster demonstrates vividly to its leaders that no terrorist is beyond our reach. Just as important, it demonstrates the same to the American people, who may not fully appreciate how effectively our country has waged the fight against al-Qaida in the decade since 9/11.
Thanks to bin Laden, the so-called war on terror dominated the first decade of the 21st century. Perhaps the obliteration of terror's global face can help prevent it from dominating the second one.
Of course, al-Qaida is far from defeated; its distributed structure means it will linger here and there for years. Yet the long-delayed elimination of its boss can at last help us put the organization into perspective. By eliminating the one person who embodied terrorism -- and reminding us of our own powers in the fight -- the slaying quickly cut our shadowy enemy down to size. And it finally brings a measure of justice to his victims and their survivors.
It also brings our progress against al-Qaida into the spotlight. Long before the slaying of bin Laden, many senior al-Qaida officials had been captured or killed all over the world. Yet nailing their leader was an accomplishment in a class by itself, showcasing American tenacity as much as our nation's well-known military virtuosity. Americans, after all, are famously impatient, yet patience was of the essence. We're supposedly bad at human intelligence, yet just such intelligence was crucial. And when finally it was time, the strike by Navy SEALs wasn't merely surgical. It was practically laparoscopic.
Even further from goals in U.S. and the Middle East
The demise of bin Laden establishes definitively what an utter failure he was, even on his own twisted terms. Al-Qaida has caused plenty of death and destruction, but with the loss of its patriarch it stands further than ever from achieving its reactionary aims.
This is a movement aimed at expelling Americans from Islamic lands, yet its efforts have backfired, causing a vast -- if at times misguided -- expansion of the U.S. footprint in those nations. An organization whose primary weapon is terror hasn't once succeeded in attacking this country since 9/11, despite repeated tries in a nation practically defined by openness. The glorious Arab Spring, meanwhile, is an eloquent rebuke to despotism, religious fanaticism and rule by violence.
Now that the big question -- where is Osama bin Laden? -- has been answered in the most satisfying possible way, others have sprung up in its place. For example: How could Pakistan possibly fail to know that it was harboring the world's leading public enemy in a hulking villa a stone's throw from the military academy in Abbottabad, a mere 75-mile drive from the nation's capital of Islamabad?
Our guess is that the government knew all too well, but finally decided to give him up to clear a path to a U.S. settlement in Afghanistan with Pakistan's Taliban frenemies. Shorn of the radioactive terrorist mastermind who was the whole aim of the American invasion, the Taliban could be seen as more acceptable negotiating partners -- and the war might come to a conclusion that all parties can accept.
If so, bin Laden will have proved beyond any doubt how important was his death for the cause of global peace.