By Eugene Robinson
Years from now, I believe, we will look back and say the elimination of Osama bin Laden changed everything. To borrow Churchill’s assessment of the Nazi defeat at El Alamein, “Now, this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Attempted terrorist attacks in the name of fundamentalist Islam will surely continue. Most will be amateurish failures, such as the alleged plot disclosed Thursday in which two homegrown would-be jihadists—now in the custody of New York City police—ineffectually aspired to blow up a synagogue. Tragically, we are bound to see attacks by genuine terrorists as well. Some may succeed.
Still, it’s hard to overstate the significance of bin Laden’s killing. Operationally and psychologically, he defined the Age of Terror—not just for Americans and other targets of his depredations but also for the terrorists who followed his writ. With his last breath, an era died.
The more we learn about bin Laden’s life in his Pakistan compound, the more apparent it becomes that even in hiding he remained the central, indispensable figure in international terrorism.
The lonely patriarch of jihad spent the autumn of his life reliving past glory—rewinding and fast-forwarding through videos of his early triumphs, like an aging movie star—and scheming obsessively about spectacular new blows he could inflict on the United States and the West.
From the computer files and handwritten journals that Navy SEALs managed to scoop up in the raid, according to widely published reports, it appears that some of al-Qaida’s younger, more vigorous and more practical leaders chafed at bin Laden’s direction. They believed, logically, that it was a waste of time and effort to try to equal or top the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks while there were much softer targets closer to home.
What’s interesting, though, is that while affiliates such as the Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula might not have welcomed all of bin Laden’s advice, they still paid attention. Even in his isolation, able to communicate only by courier, bin Laden remained the inspirational leader of the jihadist movement.
No one could match his charisma, and no one could match his legend: He fought the Soviets in Afghanistan and lived to tell the tale; he dealt an unprecedented blow to America in the heart of its biggest city; he escaped, like a ghost, after U.S. forces had cornered him at Tora Bora; and he managed to elude the soldiers and spies of the world’s pre-eminent superpower for nearly a decade. The myth of his invincibility helped draw recruits to al-Qaida and gave veterans a reason to soldier on.
Now that he’s gone, the terrorist organization he leaves behind will almost surely shift its tactical focus. More important, al-Qaida is now without its founding father and guiding spirit—who, it turns out, was not divinely protected from his enemies. The death of the myth, I believe, will prove as important as the death of the man.
For Americans, bin Laden’s death is nothing short of a liberation. With the 9/11 attacks, he not only killed thousands of people whose only crimes were to go to work, board airliners or rush to the scene of disaster as first-responders. Bin Laden also took 300 million prisoners: the rest of us.
He held hostage our foreign policy—directly or indirectly provoking two wars—and, with it, hijacked a huge chunk of the federal treasury. He goaded our leaders into stretching our military almost to the breaking point. He was the inspiration, or the excuse, for a vast expansion of the government’s power to intrude into our private lives. He changed us so that whenever we see an unattended gym bag, we don’t think “absent-mindedness,” we think “potential bomb.”
The threat of terrorism is still with us, but the man who embodied that threat is gone. We can think more clearly now—about our mission in Afghanistan and our relationship with Pakistan, about the trade-offs between liberty and security, about which of our fears are rational and which are not.
The change in our mind-set that I’m certain is coming will not happen overnight. It will take us a while to get used to our new psychological freedom. Not to worry, though; we’ve got plenty of time. One thing I know for sure is that he’s not coming back.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group