After Bin Laden: A Stronger America

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Spencer Platt / Getty Images

President Obama walked down an empty corridor to the East Room of the White House on Sunday night to announce the killing of Osama bin Laden. It was like he was walking out of a forgotten dream. Remember that quest we began nearly 10 years ago? Remember “dead or alive”?

Obama spoke quickly, recalling the trauma of 9/11 and the unity. “We went to war against al-Qaeda,” he said—waking a memory. That’s right. That’s the enemy.

Al-Qaeda is vague and formless and dispersed. The U.S. never waged such a war against such an enemy before. “We went to war against al-Qaeda,” Obama said, and with nearly 10 years of struggle under our belts we realize now what a weighty declaration that is.

He spoke of “tireless work” over many years all around the world. But he also took credit—in the form of a half-hinted mystery story that will trickle out over hours and days and years and decades. Among other things, Obama’s announcement of bin Laden’s death will surely be the opening lines of a great historical drama.

“Shortly after taking office, “ Obama said, he told CIA Director Leon Panetta to make bin Laden Job One. By last August, the CIA had “a possible lead.” A world of excitement in three words—“it took many months to run this lead to ground.”

By now you could feel the clock ticking on justice. Bin Laden’s time was running out. “Finally last month” … “today at my direction” … “killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.”

The fact that “no Americans were harmed” closed the loop in cinematic perfection. The world will greet the killing of bin Laden with a mixture of delight, fatigue and cynical objection. Even at home, some may ask how much it matters.

Sure, bin Laden was alive, but he wasn’t doing much damage–not compared to the parade of horrors he unfolded in the late 1990s and, worst of all, on Sept. 11, 2001. Why does it matter that he’s gone?

It matters because the U.S. put a marker down. “Dead or alive,” in the words of President George W. Bush, when the smell of smoke was still acrid in the nostrils of the nation. This was cowboy rhetoric, the critics later said–but when the President said it, nearly everyone in the country was feeling pretty damn cowboy.

It matters because it took a long time. How many distractions have blown past our gaze since bin Laden was Public Enemy No. 1? From the invasion of Iraq to the bombing of Libya; from Somali pirates to the rise of China; from Pelosi to Boehner–the public gaze whipped back and forth like eyeballs at a tennis match. But this tells us that the U.S. can set a goal and reach it.

It matters because people had begun to doubt whether American power was truly power; and to ask whether its day was past. In that equation, Osama bin Laden was a unsettling factor, even though his own power was diminished. As long as he was free, the U.S. was failing. It was that simple.

Remember bin Laden’s own mathematics: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse,” he said in the aftermath of his attack on the U.S. As long as he was out there, people would see a strong horse.

It matters because the more we learn about bin Laden’s story, the better we understand how hard it is to find one human being on a planet of 6 or 7 billion human beings. This was not an easy thing. It’s not surprising that it took 10 years.

Most of all, it matters because we have other big, difficult, long-range problems to solve, and we were running out of role models. The fact that this country can still fix a bulls-eye on a difficult target and stay on it for a long, frustrating decade–and win when no one expects it–is big stuff.

Maybe that weak horse isn’t so weak after all. Maybe that weak horse is built for the long run.

That was the note President Obama sounded at the end of his speech. “America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history.”

He continued: We can do these things not just because of our wealth or our power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Then he turned and walked back down the empty corridor, a stronger President of a stronger nation.