Just how good a day was Sunday for America?
There is nothing bad about Osama bin Laden’s death, nothing our post-modern, post-heroic culture should apologize for, anguish over, deconstruct or lament. The elimination of bin Laden—and not by some faceless drone or double-dealing “ally,” but by the force and skill of American arms striking at close range—is a victory for the country, for the notion of justice, for America’s troops and intelligence officers. This is a good day to be an American.
How good? News of bin Laden’s death made today’s crop of college students—poisoned by years of moral relativism and politically correct bunk equating all uses of force as the same, declaring war as our enemy, teaching that nothing is worth fighting for or against—take to the streets and spontaneously sing the Star Spangled Banner while waving the American flag. They were waving the Marine Corps flag and Old Glory on the streets in front of the White House, chanting “USA!” in Times Square, climbing up trees to hoist the colors—our colors—high. Anything that can do that is wonderful and wondrous.
They have every right to be proud and wave flags and sing songs of victory. This is a great country that can do great things in war and in peace, with a great political system that can sustain and win long, twilight struggles, protected by a great military that is amazing not just because of its reach and determination, but also because of its restraint.
Never forget that as our elite strike force of Navy SEALs hunted down a mass-murderer masquerading as a holy man, other U.S. forces were feeding the hungry in sub-Saharan Africa, trying to stop a massacre in Libya, nurturing a fragile peace in Iraq, building bridges while fighting the medieval Taliban in Afghanistan, fighting pirates off the Horn of Africa. In recent years, they have rescued Haiti and Pakistan and Sumatra and Japan after disasters of biblical proportion; liberated Iraqis and Afghanis from vast prison states; and shielded Kosovars and Kurds, Kuwaitis and Koreans.
Their work never ends and never ceases to amaze and humble. They are America’s very best not because they wear a uniform, but because of what they do in that uniform, which leads us to our system of government and politics. Our defenders take their oath to the country and its constitution, not to a man. It pays to recall that the U.S. military’s long hunt for bin Laden began in the 1990s and was the shared work of three administrations, three commanders-in-chief. They are very different men, serving at very different moments in history: one in the pre-9/11 world, in a decade when the burdens of leadership and history seemed to be quaint relics of some bygone era; one amid the flames and fury of bin Laden’s maiming of Manhattan and the Pentagon, in the early days of a new twilight struggle; one in a decade when the scars and memories of that terrible Tuesday had started to fade. Yet for all their differences and disagreements, flaws and failures, imperfections and indiscretions, they pursued the same goal, the latter two with virtually the same team of warriors, generals and commanders in place, keeping just enough of the country on the same page to realize this day.
That’s the kind of tenacity and resolve that, viewing America through the distorted and grimy prism of our own popular culture, bin Laden and his ilk will never understand. Beneath the soft, flabby outer edges of our nation, there exists muscle and bone that can unleash an unspeakable, unrelenting fury. As one wartime president soberly put it, “It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war.”
After mocking America as impotent and cowardly, the enemy now understands this.
What a hideous, unworthy enemy this is. Consider the parallel images of 9/11 and 5/1: Yes, Americans cheered the death of a mass-murderer, but the enemy cheered for mass-murder. Americans and their armed forces strive to protect the weak, the unarmed, the innocent; the enemy targets them for slaughter. America weeps when innocents are killed; the enemy dances in the street. America was sickened by the hecatomb of September 11, the enemy emboldened by it. America teaches is children that war is a last resort to be avoided, the enemy that war is a divine commandment to be followed.
America is not perfect. America’s leaders are not perfect. Without doubt, innocent people die because of U.S. military action. But the undeniable difference between bin Laden’s kind and the U.S. soldier or airman, sailor or Marine is motive and intention: As bin Laden once put it: “We do not differentiate between those dressed in military uniforms and civilians; they are all targets.” U.S. forces do differentiate—and they go to great lengths to prevent the loss of civilian life. We see the difference by the way the enemy defines success and by the way we react to military failure: we court-martial people, change targets, scrub missions, order bombing pauses, investigate, apologize and invest in ever-more precise weapons to somehow protect innocent life while doing the dirty work of global security, policing the world’s toughest neighborhoods and defending America’s interests.
Even now—even though the one-man terror superpower known as Osama bin Laden has been sent to wherever mass-murderers go when justice catches up with them—those interests still need protecting. Just as the targets on 9/11 were symbolic to the enemy, so is the killing of Osama bin Laden largely symbolic—a potent symbol, to be sure. It sends a powerful message about America’s resolve, resilience and reach. But it doesn’t end the battle that was joined on September 12, 2001. The jihadists and their patrons and partners killed Americans before and after 9/11, with and without bin Laden’s direction. And they will continue their war until their leaders and foot soldiers go the way of bin Laden.
Let us hope that 5/1 infuses America and those who defend her with a renewed sense of resolve to hasten that day.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.