Commentary: Looking at life from a 9/11 postscript

Osama bin Laden is dead. As is the case for most Americans, I’ve been waiting to hear that for a long time.

The practical importance of the death of this one terrorist is uncertain. All men, no matter how evil, eventually die.

The terror experts I’ve talked to through the years about this evil man haven’t been too sure how involved bin Laden has been in what’s happened since September 11, 2001. They haven’t been sure whether he’s more important dead or alive to his movement, al-Qaida. They haven’t even been sure how important al-Qaida has been lately to the attacks carried out in the name of al-Qaida.

Al-Qaida today is more of an idea than an organization. People are members of al-Qaida because they say they are, because they subscribe to its narrow, hate-filled version of Islam.

Clearly, the death of bin Laden is not the death of this idea.

But the symbolic and psychic importance of the death of this evil man is monumental. Like many Americans, I divide my life into pre- and post-9/11.

I started that day with 24 journalists from around the globe on a tour of historic Cambridge, Mass., not far from where the planes took off that hit the twin towers. There may have been some who knew how completely the future had changed on that day, but I wasn’t one.

Since that day, much in American life has been about chasing bin Laden. As a country, we started in Afghanistan, where he was hiding at the time.

For me, I was back at school for the year after it happened. When I returned to Kansas City, the talk shifted from hunting down bin Laden in Tora Bora to stopping his movement’s spread in Iraq. This turned out to be wrong; bin Laden had little if any imprint in Iraq before we invaded. But I know from rolling across the desert as a reporter embedded with U.S. Marines, they believed, sincerely and truly, they were weakening bin Laden with each mile they advanced towards Baghdad.

Bin Laden, of course, wasn’t there.

That was one leg of the chase. He also wasn’t in Madrid the following year, in early March, as I looked at the damage done by 10 bombs that detonated within three minutes during a morning commute. Investigators were trying to wrap their minds around the notion that bin Laden had inspired the deaths of 191 people there, but perhaps had not planned or carried out or even knew about the attacks.

And he wasn’t back in Iraq at the end of that month, when four U.S. private contractors were murdered and hung from a bridge in Fallujah. But that was part of a growing insurgency being tied more and more to al-Qaida in Iraq, which had been active for a while and was ratcheting up its profile. Again, no one could tell exactly what bin Laden meant in Iraq, to attacks on U.S. troops and against Iraqi civilians and police, but in the next year as the country deteriorated, his presence seemed to hang over so much of what was wrong.

And, again, he wasn’t actually in London in July 2005, when I was there to cover the aftermath of four bombs exploding within minutes, killing 56 morning commuters. The suicide bombers had left behind a videotape calling bin Laden one of “today’s heroes, our beloved sheikh.” But, again, his presence was spectral, not practical. He was inspiring people just by being out there, somewhere.

That fall, a private security guard in Baghdad told me an al-Qaida cell had been busted nearby, and they’d found a map of my hotel, with (among many others) my room labeled with my name. A month later, a week after I’d left, two truck bombs exploded near the hotel, shattering the notion that a couple of blast walls offered protection against those acting in his name. Again, he was nowhere to be seen.

And that was the case with failed terror attacks in Germany, France, England and the United States in the following years. I remember a Marine in Iraq in 2006 shaking his head and saying we were never going to find bin Laden, as another piped up that we’d certainly already found and killed him, and were keeping the body on ice until the time was right. Both were joking, but the point was real: He was a specter, haunting much of our lives.

And now he’s dead. I don’t know that this death makes anyone or any place safer from terrorism. I don’t know if this death even diminishes al-Qaida, whatever it is these days.

But I do know that on a day like this, we can feel a little better about the nature of justice. Bad people, in the end, fail. That his body was dumped into the ocean is a fitting way for him to simply vanish. As the war against terrorism and hate goes forward, at the very least, he won’t be finding joy anymore from what was done in his name.