On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 al-Qaeda operatives launched a series of coordinated suicide attacks involving four hijacked commercial passenger jet airliners. The images of the carnage flickered across screens around a stunned nation and the voices of hollowed journalists echoed throughout homes around the world. Then on May 2, 2011, Osama bin Laden was killed in a covert operation in Abottabad, Pakistan, closing the chapter on one of the most quintessential dramas of our lifetimes. It is the period between those historic dates that I would like to explore, before concluding with my conjectures about a future without bin Laden.
The earth-shattering impact of al-Qaeda’s attacks left the American people dazed and an international community disillusioned. American vindication through Bin Laden’s death seemed a foregone conclusion. Still in the throes of confusion, our nation suddenly found itself poised for war, and in President George W. Bush’s bellicose Presidential Address to the Nation on Oct. 7, 2001, a state of war was declared on Afghanistan. “On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.”
Yet for nearly a decade, the world’s most wanted man and founder of al-Qaeda persisted to elude the world’s most powerful economic and military machine. More than a few commentators suggested that Bin Laden’s mere livelihood would detract from American prestige and introduce doubts about the capabilities of the world’s most capable military. Four-star general Stanley McChrystal, the previous top commander in Afghanistan, highlighted Osama bin Laden’s importance to al-Qaeda’s “multinational enterprise to export terror around the globe,” and strongly believed in the value of neutralizing al-Qaeda’s founder. In December 2009, the general stated, “‘I don’t think that we can finally defeat al-Qaeda until he’s captured or killed.’” As of May 2, the impetus for our War on Terror has been addressed, our mission accomplished. But at what cost?
It is amazing to see how one of America’s iconic enemies has impacted the American lifestyle and left a scarring legacy upon our country. With the benefit of hindsight, the changes our country has endured as a result of Bin Laden’s meager investment in terror become even more lucid. The chair of the 9/11 Commission, former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean says, “that huge 9/11 operation only took $500,000 maximum.” But with one decision and an insignificant sum to support it, Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda Sept. 11, 2001 attacks affected our country in a myriad of ways that altered the American lifestyle.
Airline passenger travel took a precipitous downturn, security checkpoints became doldrums, and massive government capital was invested in non-profitable security assets or services. Stephen Gandel of Time magazine calculates that in the past decade since the events of 9/11, Osama bin Laden has “cost the United States anywhere from $280 billion to well over $5 trillion.” He even goes so far as to posit that “Bin Laden caused the financial crisis” when the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates to boost the economy in the wake of the attack, which in turn drove investors to subprime mortgages culminating in the financial crisis of 2008.
The death of what The New York Times has called “the most wanted face of terrorism” jolted communities around the world and stirred a variety of manifestations of elation domestically. The Huffington Post shared a video of Phillies and Mets fans shouting unified chants of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” Andrea Noble and Meredith Somers reported in the Washington Times that a small crowd had gathered even before the official announcement of Bin Laden’s death and eventually increased in scale to a jubilant rally of hundreds of people waving American flags and bursting into spontaneous singing of the national anthem. These reports of joyous festivities struck a chord within me and awakened long dormant memories.
I was a 13-year-old eighth grader when the first plane struck. My mom came sprinting to my room and my brother’s room early in the morning, yelling and calling us to the television. We watched the images in shock. Although old enough to comprehend what had happened, we were still too young to grasp the full weight of its consequences. I still remember that morning. My first class was physical education and our teacher was late, allowing a contumacious debacle of orderly assembly for our morning stretches. All of the kids were excitedly explaining how they would kill Osama bin Laden and excitedly describing the scenarios with exactly that outcome. Some time later, we would be deemed a part of the “9/11 generation.”
It wouldn’t be until I first heard about the denouement of our country’s drawn-out search that I seriously reminisced on the implications of the event that re-shaped our nation’s collective consciousness. Listening to Obama’s official address, I felt overwhelmed by a strange air of satisfaction. “America! We have finally done it!” I thought, joining an international chorus of voices. I was excited with joy at first, but further contemplation made me wonder if I should find comfort cause for joy in someone else’s death. While conducting the necessary research to prepare this article in the days that followed Obama’s announcement, I came across the words of a woman partaking in the boisterous celebrations outside the White House that veraciously reflect my own sentiments. “We’re not celebrating death. We’re celebrating justice.” Those words may aptly describe the feelings of an entire nation.
Andrew Wong is a fourth-year business economics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.