Osama bin Laden, the man who killed over 3,000 Americans, is dead. Sunday night the president announced that American Special Forces eliminated the mass-murderer who spent the past decade as the counterpoint to human evolution.
Before 9/11, historians were celebrating “The End of History.” People rejoiced at the triumph of Western liberalism. Having won the Cold War, America in the 1990s enjoyed a period of peace and wealth unseen since the Roaring 20s that followed World War One.
The 1990s came to a close on September 11, 2001. That was the day we watched friends, loved ones and innocents slaughtered. Suddenly, the horrors of history that we thought were behind us became part of our everyday discourse.
Lives changed forever. A generation that came of age in a vacuum of peace and opulence suddenly lived with the knowledge that everything could end in a split-second. Unlike the slow build-up of Vietnam, the war that began on 9/11 was instant. It was Pearl Harbor in real time. Every American who wasn’t present at Ground Zero or the Pentagon found a working television soon enough.
9/11 was the seminal event for this generation. Young men and women who had long planned on becoming lawyers, doctors and entrepreneurs instead became soldiers. They took up the cause in response to the deadliest attack on American soil by a foreign adversary.
In civilian life, al Qaeda became a household name as our country armored itself in a kaleidoscope of security. Flying became an act of courage and TSA an easy target for mockery. Thousands of American lives were lost abroad. Christmas in America was spent preparing care packages for soldiers on the front. Taxpayers parted with hundreds of billions of dollars.
As a nation, we spent much of this past decade discussing how al Qaeda changed America. Bin Laden’s death doesn’t end that discussion — but perhaps we can also start to talk about how America came together in uncertain times, in an uncertain decade, to demand absolute terms for global civility. For in the midst of chaos, millions of Americans stepped forward to pursue justice on behalf of those who perished. Against all the debates of these years there has been one common thread uniting us across the political spectrum: what happened on 9/11 was inexcusable. Over 3,000 people, who were busy building their lives and supporting their families, wanted nothing to do with the life of the man who took theirs.
Our country often looks to the distant past to see the better part of ourselves reflected. We look to the spirit of 1776. We look to how we once rid the world of Nazism. It’s easier to affiliate ours views with a moment in history that already has a verdict. Yet our courage is about stepping forward while the jury is still out. America, on the whole, did that over this past decade.
Osama bin Laden was a megalomaniac who spent his life murdering innocents — all while seeking a martyr’s death. He wasn’t unique. The 20th century was full of men like him, and too often they were protected by borders, armies and fellow ideologues. They were, above all, protected by the sheer size and scope of this world.
America has made that world smaller with her technologies and more just with the courage of her people. In those facts live a glimpse into the future, and an indication of what is likely to be America’s largest contribution to humanity. The 21st century will be unwelcoming to mass-murderers. Bin Laden may have interrupted the American message of Western values, so widely trumpeted in the 1990s, but in the end he served as the catalyst for his own demise. The horrors he visited upon American soil unleashed this country’s core strength: the ability to openly debate, come to a decision and act effectively. That hastens a world that is inhospitable to terrorists. There will be more men who seek to be like Osama bin Laden. In the 21st century, America will see to it that they end like him, as well.
Eben Carle served in the White House as an Associate Director on the Homeland Security Council from 2008-2009. He received a master’s degree in American studies from Columbia University and is currently writing his first novel.