Osama bin Laden is dead. President Barack Obama went on television late Sunday night to declare that the Saudi Arabian mastermind of the 9/11 attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon has been killed in Pakistan. "Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida, and a terrorist who's responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children. Later in his statement, the president added: "Justice has been done."
The president eloquently evoked the day of the worst single terrorist attack on American soil. "The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory," he announced from the White House East Room." The death of bin Laden happened almost 10 years after the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people and plunged Americans into an unaccustomed sense of vulnerability. America became a country obsessed with security, and many Americans worried about erosions of their civil liberities. But all those concerns were put aside Sunday night in the euphoria of this intelligence triumph. "The American people did not choose this fight," the president reminded. "It came to our shores." Crowds gathered outside the White House to cheer and chant, "U.S.A! U.S.A!"
The terrorist mastermind came to a violent end at a mansion near Islamabad, far from the remote border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan that intelligence sources often assumed served as his hiding places. The killing will be celebrated as an act of revenge for the Sept. 11, 2001, terror acts and as a major blow to al-Qaida, the organization that bin Laden built into America's No. 1 terror threat.
The brutal achievement of a major U.S. foreign policy goal comes under the administration of a Democratic president who has often been accused by his Republican critics on putting the country at risk. While the administration will avoid gloating over the moment, Obama's Republican opponents will find it harder to accuse him — at least for a while — of weakness on national security. The president made clear that the act was the result of priorities he set. He said he directed CIA Director Leon Panetta "to make the killing or capture of Osama bin Laden our top priority."
Bin Laden's death comes as his followers have been scrambling to respond to the democratic wave that has collapsed dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt and threatened others, from Jordan to Syria to Yemen. The demand for representative government in the Middle East, which caught the "experts" by surprise, ran counter to bin Laden's dream of an Islamic caliphate that would encompass several Arab countries. At the same time, this unexpected democratic surge has also upset the status quo in the region for the United States and allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The U.S. may hope for some respite from attacks and threats, but the next few months will determine how dependent al-Qaida was on bin Laden, if new leaders will emerge or if other groups will seek to take up the holy war against America. President Obama emphasized that the U.S. was not at war with Islam, and he praised Pakistan for its cooperation, but it was clearly an American operation.
Joel Dreyfuss is The Root's managing editor.