Commentary: Osama bin Laden is gone but we shouldn't forget him

The late Osama bin Laden.
The late Osama bin Laden. AP

While “good riddance” and far more condemnatory — even expletive-filled — epitaphs have been intermingled with Americans’ celebration and jubilation over the killing of hated terrorist Osama bin Laden, the unfortunate truth is that “gone but not forgotten” will and must be our reality.

Yes, I know, we usually reserve that one for loved ones or someone we respect and cherish. But as much as America and many across the globe wanted al-Qaida’s maniacal mastermind gone, how do you forget someone who changed your way of life?

When bin Laden orchestrated the most heinous foreign attack ever on American soil on Sept. 11, 2001, killing more than 3,000 citizens in the World Trade Center twin towers, the Pentagon and Flight 93, America was forever changed. We were drawn into two wars that have claimed upwards of 5,500 U.S. lives and left tens of thousands injured. Countless soldiers who haven’t lost their limbs have lost their nerves and their families. Government-sanctioned eavesdropping was expanded exponentially, pat-downs at airports and other elements of tight security became our new norm. Citizens once embraced as neighbors and friends became suspect because of their last names, the way they dressed, the color of their skin or how they worshipped. Our government changed, most noticeably with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Our politics changed, as some candidates for office and political parties began to declare their fitness for office or ability to lead only in terms of who could keep us safe or best prosecute a war.

Yes, bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man, he who taunted us continually via grainy film and audio tapes, is gone, killed Sunday in Pakistan in a raid by a heroic team of American operatives.

But we’ll never return to the America that we were before that fateful day in September of 2001.

Many are saying that this is an end or an era. To some extent, that’s true. This marks the end of a nearly 10-year effort to bring some level of closure to the 9/11 attacks. Many people have felt that regardless of how much damage and pain had been inflicted on the Taliban or al-Qaida, the fact that bin Laden was still on the loose and seemingly able to tantalize us at will meant that a debt had not been satisfied, that justice had been denied.

President Obama’s declaration that “Justice has been done” indeed rings true. This closes an important chapter in the war on terror.

Bin Laden was the face of not only the 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil, but terrorism the world over. Probably not since Adolf Hitler had there been one so reviled and sought after. Yes, there was much celebration when U.S. forces dug Iraq’s Saddam Hussein out of a hole at a farmhouse in Tikrit and took him into custody; he would later be tried and hanged by Iraqis. But even the murderous Saddam, who mercilessly slaughtered his own people, came a distant second to bin Laden.

Perhaps deranged, bin Laden was a calculated, evil murderer who detested the United States and all it stood for. Frankly, al-Qaida wreaked havoc the world over. And while we Americans focused most heavily on him because of 9/11, this terror monger was a thorn in America’s side for nearly two decades. Remember the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center? Remember the USS Cole bombing?

Gone, yes, but not forgotten. And we must never forget the kind of damage and carnage evil men can cause. We must never forget that there are real enemies of America who are intent on exacting real and lasting harm to our people and way of life. Our only defense is a united citizenry and leadership who work across racial, ethnic, political and ideological lines to preserve and protect the unique spirit of America.

For a moment after Sept. 11, 2001, it seemed as if we understood that: Republicans and Democrats in Washington locked arms and stood behind the president. It seemed that they would come together not only to defend the country but to shape sound, reasonable domestic policy. The love didn’t last long; the bitter partisan bickering and gridlock returned with a vengeance.

Sunday’s welcome word of bin Laden’s demise arrived in the midst of the nonsensical birther movement, tea party rage, partisan division and ideological warfare on Capitol Hill and at state houses around the country, including in South Carolina. At a time when we’ve divvied ourselves up into sides — us versus them — the nation’s most wanted enemy goes down in a firefight at the hands of valiant members of our mighty military.

Chances are that a hobbled al-Qaida’s next move will be an attempt at retaliation.

What’s our next move? Will we lock arms, circle the wagons behind President Obama and face the enemy as well as the domestic problems that are staring us down? Or will we continue to go Pogo on one another, satisfied that “We have met the enemy, and he is us”?