Killing bin Laden: How the U.S. Finally Got Its Man

After more than a decade of hunting, the U.S. eliminates its most hated enemy

  • Brooks Kraft for TIME

    A jubilant crowd of mostly college students celebrated in front of the White House the night bin Laden's death was announced by the President

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    So while it's not enough to get one individual, the occasion of bin Laden's death is a moment to take stock. A scattered enemy can still be a dangerous one. Terrorism experts warn of the possibility that an isolated cell or lone wolf might try to strike in retaliation for the killing of the leader.

    But the al-Qaeda network is a tattered tissue compared with what it was when it managed to hit the American mainland as it had never been hit by outsiders before. According to polling by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, across the Muslim world confidence in bin Laden had plunged long before his death — down by half in the Palestinian territories, by even more in Indonesia, Jordan and, yes, Pakistan.

    From Tunisia to Egypt to Syria this year, scores of thousands of young people — the very people bin Laden hoped to lead backward across a millennium — have poured into the streets in peaceful uprisings, chanting slogans of democracy. To be sure, Islamic fundamentalists will seek to turn the Arab Spring in their own direction, but regardless of how that plays out, it has been a bad season for bin Ladenism.

    The successes against al-Qaeda have cost us dearly — in money, time, easy freedom and untroubled sleep. It has cost the lives of more than 5,000 U.S. and allied service members while leaving many more thousands wounded. The war on terrorism is nearly 10 years old and has no clear end in sight.

    But perhaps the most important thing to come from bin Laden's death is the sense that maybe this struggle won't last forever. That hope seemed to animate the young people who greeted the news Sunday night with jubilation. Outside the White House, college students turned Pennsylvania Avenue into a giant party, waving flags and chanting "U.S.A.!" They shimmied trees, sang patriotic songs and hugged strangers like sailors on V-J Day. Similar celebrations broke out across the country, but the next day a more contemplative mood settled over people whose lives were marked by 9/11. People like Ben Hughes, 21, a junior at Savannah College of Art and Design, who typed this Facebook message on the first day without Osama bin Laden:

    "I was a sixth grade student in Chatham, MA. I distinctly remember walking into school that morning with two friends, one of whom had his birthday that day and was planning a party. When the first plane hit, we were all ushered to the main hallway and made to take seats on the floor for an announcement from our principal. She told us that it seemed an accident had occurred with one of the World Trade Center buildings in New York City. A pilot may have suffered a heart attack at the helm of the aircraft and hit the building, she said.

    "We continued our day without access to television or news outlets. But you could see that the teachers knew more than they let on. When I arrived home I asked my mother if I could watch the news reports, and for what seemed like days we sat there, in both awe and terror. It was the first moment in my short life where I felt entirely helpless.

    "In the years since that day I have marked every year with a solid time of reflection and silence. And I will always remember also that I was on a flight between Charlotte, NC and Savannah, GA when the pilot came over the loudspeaker to announce that Osama bin Laden had been killed."

    The innocence lost can never be restored. But the feeling of helplessness need not last forever. It is an older, wiser country that writes the epitaph of the terrorist.

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