He lurked in the shadows of the American psyche for a decade: Osama bin Laden was the potent symbol of evil, the elusive foe, the monster, the myth. And now he’s gone, leaving the nation to celebrate his death but ponder an uneasy future.
The aftereffects are complex. While we still mourn the dead from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there is some relief and reassuring pride in military know-how and hard-won victory. The press is awash in lofty commentary and rampant speculation while rakish headlines proclaim, “Osama been gotten.”
Horror lingers, though. We’ve had an encounter with the proverbial bogeyman.
“He was the Adolf Hitler of our time. He was the ‘bogeyman.’ He was the incarnation of pure evil, killing Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and agnostics indiscriminately. He was a mass murderer who couched his madness in a religion,” talk radio host Michael Savage told The Washington Times.
“As we mark this victory, we know that as one chapter closes, more chapters will be written. A flawed ideology did not die with one man,” said Tom Ridge, the nation’s first Homeland Security secretary. “But just as surely as the fight will continue, so will our determination. We remain, just as we were nearly 10 years ago, joined together and joined to the task.”
Indeed, the nation stood collectively vigilant against the specter of a common enemy, one whose effects we feel every time we go to the airport and have to take off our shoes or wait in a long line.
“Osama came to symbolize the terrorist opposition, in a way that was dark and unreachable - until now,” said Bruce Buchanan, a presidential historian with the University of Texas at Austin.
“His death brings a certain amount of closure to the American people, but not complete closure. Yes, bin Laden was that bogeyman. Politicians, including presidents, have found it useful to have a bogeyman as a way to unify people and bring forth action and passion, though this can be manipulative and overdone. But sometimes the world offers up that bogeyman without spin, and that is the case here.”
The effect on those with deep connections to the Sept. 11 attacks has been immediate and visceral.
“Knowing the man who was responsible for the murder of my brother David Laychak and thousands more has been brought to justice and is no longer personally capable of harming anyone is a relief and a mournfully satisfying feeling,” said James J. Laychak, president of the nonprofit Pentagon Memorial Fund, which was established by families of the 184 people who died on duty that day.
Jack Glaser, associate professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, also categorizes bin Laden as a “bogeyman,” but a persistent one. The terrorist leader’s link to Sept. 11 grants him a singular, historic significance.
“In this sense, there is nobody else like him in modern American history. Even presidential assassins, whose acts have had a wrenching effect, were quickly brought to justice and so couldn’t haunt us in the same way. But also they did not have that quality of being ‘the other.’ Bin Laden was scary, wily and different, and he wanted to destroy us,” Mr. Glaser said.
“His death at the hands of U.S. forces may allow for some degree of closure now. It has certainly sparked celebration, which may reflect a long pent-up anxiety. But we have to bear in mind that al Qaeda is much more than bin Laden, and they will no doubt try to strike significantly at some point in order to both retaliate and to prove that they are a continuing threat.”
But the U.S. can thrive under threat; our traditional values tend to be underscored in crisis.
“This victory is a tribute to the patient endurance of American justice,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who recommends that the nation “thank those who made this possible,” including former President George W. Bush, President Obama, troops in the field and the intelligence community.