Bin Laden's Great Mistake: What Osama Never Understood About the American Spirit

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Revelers cheer outside the White House on May 2, 2011, after President Barack Obama's announcement of Osama bin Laden's death

When President Barack Obama announced on May 1 that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, I was among those who headed to the White House. The mood in Lafayette Square was joyous, ebullient, cathartic — though hardly the bacchanal of vengeful jingoism that some in the media have portrayed it to be, or an expression of "orgasmic euphoria in news of bloodshed" as David Sirota claimed on An outsider would have been struck by the crowd's diversity, by now so familiar to Americans that we barely notice it. I'd guess that a plurality of the flag wavers were white, but I saw plenty of exuberant black, Asian, Latino and multiracial faces too. An elated young Muslim American, wearing a headscarf, enthused to a television crew about the sense of unity and belonging she felt with those around her. The whole scene would have bewildered bin Laden as much as it would have repelled him. And it goes a long way toward explaining why his war on America was doomed to fail.

Bin Laden's goal on Sept. 11, 2001, wasn't merely to murder as many innocent Americans as possible. To his followers, bin Laden predicted that the U.S. would overreact to the attacks and allow itself to be drawn into an endless, enervating conflict with the Muslim world. He believed al-Qaeda could bleed America into bankruptcy. Like the U.S.S.R. before it, the U.S. was a spent empire, a soft superpower, "a weak horse." As the terrorism expert Daveed Gartenstein-Ross writes, bin Laden believed that "just as the Arab fighters and Afghan mujahidin had destroyed Russia economically, al-Qaeda was now doing the same to the United States."

In some respects, he was right. The war on terror has cost the U.S. upwards of $3 trillion, saddled the country with deficits as far as the eye can see and constrained our ability to invest in the future. In the past decade, economic rivals in the developing world have taken advantage of our fixation on terrorism to erase the U.S.'s competitive lead. As Ezra Klein of the Washington Post noted, America's troubles have been largely of its own design: we didn't have to invade Iraq, pass tax cuts we couldn't afford or turn a blind eye while investment bankers played roulette with the housing market. From his bunker in Abbottabad, Pakistan, bin Laden no doubt delighted in our economic travails. But we brought them on ourselves.

And yet for all that — and despite all the hand-wringing about American decline — the U.S. remains the world's most powerful, prosperous nation, while bin Laden swims with sharks. Why? The bravery, persistence and ingenuity of the American military are the most obvious reasons. But the scene outside the White House that night also revealed something about the sources of American strength.

Bin Laden's fateful error was to assume that American society in the wake of 9/11 looked anything like that of the U.S.S.R. during its last decade of existence. By the time the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Russian standard of living was in decline and population growth had stagnated, eroding the Soviet economic base. The population of the U.S., on the other hand, grew by 13.2% in the decade before 2001. The U.S. added more people during that time than in any period since World War II. In the past 10 years, the rate of growth slowed to 9.7% — in part because of security-driven immigration restrictions. And yet compared with every other Western industrialized country, where populations are shrinking, the U.S. is a picture of vitality. And unlike, say, that of China, the American fertility rate remains high enough to sustain economic expansion for at least another generation.

The secret of American resilience is not just that the U.S. attracts newcomers; it's also what they do when they arrive in the country. In his book The Future of Power, the Harvard political scientist Joseph S. Nye Jr. points out that in 1998, Chinese- or Indian-born engineers ran one-quarter of all high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. By 2005, 1 in 4 technology start-ups had been launched by immigrants. A 2009 Brookings Institution study found that among people with advanced degrees, immigrants are three times more likely to file for patents than native-born Americans. The U.S.'s greatest long-term strategic asset, Nye writes, lies in its ability to "attract the best and brightest from the rest of the world and meld them into a diverse culture of creativity."

That was the culture — the country — on display that night in Lafayette Square. It was a young, college-age crowd. Many were children of immigrants who arrived during the wave of the '90s, members of "the generation that has borne the heaviest share of the burden" since 9/11, in Obama's words. What bin Laden never understood is that, whatever the body blows suffered over the past decade, American society retained its capacity to renew itself. The U.S. was able not only to sustain the long war but also to produce innovations that have changed the world: Google Earth, the iPhone, Facebook, Twitter. America today is probably a less open and less confident nation than it was on 9/11. But it has become a more youthful, more diverse and more dynamic one as well.

That isn't a prescription for complacency. Our infrastructure and public-education system are in dreadful shape, Washington's political class appears hopelessly inept, and we are drowning in debt. The benefits we have reaped from immigration could still be squandered if politicians continue to pander to the xenophobic fringe. The defeat of bin Laden presents the U.S. with an opportunity to rebuild its strength at home. Doing so will mean learning from our mistakes. But there are lessons in success too.

Ratnesar, a TIME contributing editor-at-large, is a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of Tear Down This Wall: A City, a President, and the Speech That Ended the Cold War. His column on global affairs usually appears on Mondays on