Via the White House Flickr site, a tense moment in the Situation Room yesterday, as the national security team was updated on the raid on a Pakistani compound where Osama bin Laden had been in hiding. The weight of the moment plays out a little differently on each face. The political, diplomatic, and military cost of failure would have been enormous. The mission was, as we all know by now, successful, and led to spontaneous parties in streets around the world, with firefighters in New York making an impromptu pilgrimage to the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center once stood. They told reporters that finally, almost ten years after the 9/11 attacks, they feel a sense of closure.
It remains to be seen what else this mission will change. It could give political cover to a more immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, or for shutting down the prison at Guantanamo (trying the inmates in civilian courts, and then transferring them to federal penitentiaries or repatriating them to their native lands). Indeed, the inevitable boost in the president’s poll numbers could grease the skids for his ongoing negotiations with Congress regarding domestic policy and raising the federal debt limit.
It’s also unclear how this will change the geopolitics. Some observers are arguing that bin Laden had enough operational control of al Qaeda, and was a sufficiently potent symbol of the organization, that bin Laden’s death could actually make a measurable change in the global terrorist movement. Internal liberation struggles throughout the Middle East and North Africa have cut off the knees of anti-Western movements, and removing bin Laden should also remove the movement’s head. Even if other branches of al Qaeda seek to fill the void, it is hard to imagine them gaining the same reach and mystique that bin Laden had developed.
On the other hand, bin Laden was only one man, and his death cannot make up for the dead of 9/11, the Cole attack, the Embassy bombings, and other al Qaeda attacks. Nor can it compensate for the dead soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, nor the civilians who died in those and other countries in the course of post‑9/11 wars. Nor is his death likely to end the practice of secret warrantless wiretaps, torture in secret US prisons, or intrusive searches at airports. And so, alas, bin Laden’s legacy lives on. With the complicity of the Bush administration, bin Laden undermined America’s freedom, and though the Obama administration had the skill and organization to finally find and kill bin Laden, they do not seem to have the fortitude needed to end that enduring and disappointing legacy of al Qaeda’s attacks.