The Price of Retribution

On September 11 2001, terrorists acting on the orders of Osama bin Laden killed almost 3,000 innocent people in New York and Washington, D.C. Almost a decade later, bin Laden met his end at the hands of American special forces -- not in a cave, as those who cultivated his legend as an ascetic might have us believe -- but in a large compound in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.

The attacks of September 11 left thousands dead, families broken, and turned the center of the proudest city in the world into rubble. But they also left a festering wound in the American psyche that has yet to heal.

In the years following September 11, America lost its mind. Fearful, Americans gave over more power to their government than ever before in the form of the PATRIOT Act. Reflecting on hideous legal memos justifying government-sanctioned torture, Justice Department Official David Margolis exonerated the authors suggesting that they were victims of a lapse in judgment brought on by the aftermath of 9/11.

The march to war in Iraq was bolstered by two false narratives: one laying the blame for the September 11 attacks on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the other manufacturing a false link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. The American people, frightened as they were at the time, acquiesced to a foolish and unnecessary war. Things didn't improve after Barack Obama took office. Former Vice President Dick Cheney effectively turned the shame of torture into a badge of honor. The once-bipartisan goal of closing Gitmo became an impossible task as one side gave into fear and the other embraced it. Several weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the United States of America was too afraid of its own legal system to try the alleged perpetrators of 9/11 in the very city where the slaughter took place. Nations such as Israel, India, and Pakistan had weathered the harrowing reality of terrorism for decades, but despite the bravery of our first-responders and service members, in other ways, America proved exceptionally fragile.

Without George W. Bush in office to gently remind his party that the fight against al-Qaeda was not tantamount to a war against Islam, Republicans allowed anti-Muslim hysteria to take hold. Republicans in Congress put Islam itself on trial while their colleagues at the state level attempted to treat practicing Islam as a terrorist act. Gone is Bush's rhetoric hailing Islam as a religion of peace; those who would be his successors proclaim one of the world's great religions an existential threat to the United States. The horrifying irony -- that no one has suffered from terrorism more than Muslims themselves -- seems lost to them.

The threat of terrorism will remain though bin Laden is gone. He was a figurehead and a symbol, both to the Americans who despised him and the villains he inspired. Like shards of glass, al-Qaeda's franchises and affiliates remain scattered across the globe, planning ever more innovative ways to slaughter human beings. Bin Laden understood from the beginning that his tiny group of murderers would never be able to destroy the United States. Instead, he would destroy America from within by luring us into unwinnable wars abroad and exploiting fear to warp America into the weak, skittish tyrant he always believed us to be.

Just as al-Qaeda could never defeat the United States militarily, the biggest threat to its ideology was never just American force but Muslims' own desire for self-determination. It is fitting that bin Laden's end should come now, while the Arab Spring brings the reign of less imagined despots to a close. As they usher in their new democracies, we should consider what we've done with ours.

With bin Laden dies the myth of immortality he had cultivated by evading American justice for so long. But whether his twisted dream dies with him is within our power. We will never get back the lives lost on or since 9/11 or the piece of our souls we lost in pursuit of retribution. Whether his death is the first step on the road back to sanity depends on what we do now.

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