The execution of Osama bin Laden is much more than a timely reminder of the dangers of killing Americans. It goes a long way to filling a gap exploited by terrorists in U.S. national-security policy, to debunking the terrorist option, and to demystifying the jihadists. American security policy was essentially outlined by Franklin D. Roosevelt in two speeches to the Congress at the beginning and end of 1941. In his State of the Union message in January, he enunciated the goal of the Four Freedoms (of speech and expression, and worship; and from fear and want), and said: “We must always be wary of those who with sounding brass and tinkling cymbal would preach the ism of appeasement.” And in his war message in December, referring to the attacks at Pearl Harbor and elsewhere, he said: “We will make very certain that this form of treachery never again endanger us.” The United States would not be an appeasement power, would promote democratic values and generalized prosperity, and would maintain a deterrent force adequate to dissuade any nation from attacking it.
In general, those goals have been successfully pursued. The U.S. has not appeased its adversaries, and conducted the Cold War as a contest between the “Free World” and the Communists, although the Free World included a number of undemocratic regimes. But democracy triumphed, including in most formerly undemocratic allies, such as Spain, Portugal, Taiwan, South Korea, and most of Latin America. And America’s deterrent strength has been such that no country has dared attack it directly since Dec. 7, 1941. The terrorists, with a series of outrages culminating in the infamous attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, thought they had found a way round that deterrent force by hatching their plans in failed states and attacking directly with suicide warriors in a way that was difficult to connect to any other country. Even the Afghan Taliban regime, which was in fact implicated in those atrocities, denied all responsibility for them.
Bin Laden’s spectacular attack focused the world’s attention on the phenomenon of the non-national terrorist adversary, happy to die for the cause. Pres. George W. Bush sounded the right note on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, when he returned to Washington in Air Force One, escorted for the first time in U.S. airspace by Air Force fighter planes, and told the nation and the world that all countries were either “with us or against us” and that “no distinction will be made between terrorists and countries that assist terrorists.” This has proved difficult to effect, and Iran continues to be the principal terrorism-supporting state in the world (and is grasping toward a nuclear military capacity). But the defeat of the actual terrorists, though not complete, is now quite comprehensive.
We need only recall bin Laden’s belligerent videos, insouciantly delivered to and telecast by al-Jazeera in the aftermath of 9/11, that there would be endless terrorist attacks until the West and its puppet regimes in the Arab world were laid low, and his taunt that Somalia proved the U.S. was decadent and cowardly. He claimed to look forward to death and for a time seemed to mock America by his ability to be heard and to stage occasional lesser outrages in various countries. The fact that he clung to life in utter seclusion, not facing the rigors of cave warfare with his cadres, and gradually lost effectiveness and visibility, was indicative of the general progress against organized terrorism. The banal and unheroic nature of his death exposed him as an impotent poseur who sought to avoid death rather than risking it as he professed to wish and urged upon others, demonstrated the revived quality of much-disparaged U.S. intelligence, and reaffirmed the very high quality and professionalism of U.S. special forces.