Where Victory Lies

It isn't in bin Laden's death. It's in all the ways he failed to change us

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Illustration by Gerard DuBois for TIME

Of all the revelations, this is the conversation I remember from a September day almost 10 years ago. I was driving home from school with my daughters; they were 4 and almost 7, and the news a few days after the attacks was relentlessly grim: body counts and a smoking, toxic ruin and cars unclaimed at suburban train stations because Mom or Dad never came home from work that day.

So we listened to the oldies station on the radio. That was safe and sunny, until the top of the hour brought the latest update: 2,595 now feared dead at the World Trade Center. A great gust of indignation rose from my 4-year-old.

"They should have been more careful," she said. "They should have watched where they were going, the men flying the planes — they shouldn't have knocked those buildings down."

My almost-7-year-old came back, all wise and knowing. "Galen," she said anciently, "that wasn't an accident. They meant to knock the buildings down."

Silence. Stubborn. "No, they didn't."

"Yes. They did. They wanted to kill those people. They were bad men."

And I wondered. When was it, somewhere along the way, that she had discovered the presence of evil in the world? At 4, it was unthinkable. By 7, it was undeniable. She did not need fairy tales; she knew what evil looked like, smelled like, and I wondered exactly how and when that had happened — and whether it happened sooner for children like her, born into peace and prosperity and then baptized on a beautiful fall day by cataclysm.

Now, 10 years later, the worst of the bad men is suddenly, finally gone. Turns out he'd been living like a soccer dad in the suburbs rather than like a troll in a cave the way we had imagined. Never mind. He's finished. So now we can ask, Did Osama bin Laden really do that thing that terrorists set out to do: change us, change everything, make us flinch at a sudden noise, sleep with one eye open, toss out principles that prove inconvenient, turn a whole nation into a twitchy neighborhood-watch group while he wages a holy war?

We certainly twitched for a while. We watched for men with nicks on their faces because jihadists shave as a disguise. We reported unattended bags. Bought duct tape. Removed our shoes. Packed 3-oz. (90 ml) bottles in ziplock bags. Learned that sarin gas smells like Juicy Fruit gum and cyanide like bitter almonds. And you could argue that it worked: a decade's worth of terrorist plots were foiled by spooks and soldiers, alert passengers and beat cops and Times Square vendors and shopkeepers who wondered why anyone needed to buy so much bleach.

But no war gets fought in white gloves. United by the attacks, we split over the response, over the invasions and the wiretaps, the interrogations, the memorials. Barack Obama, law professor, ran for President promising to close Gitmo and landed in office only to learn why he needed to keep it open. Drones were aimed at outlaws but hit innocents who got in the way. We couldn't decide who should get frisked at the airport.

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