David Greenberg: A Fitting Resolution to the Story of 9/11Roundup: Historians' Take
David Greenberg, a contributing editor to The New Republic, teaches history at Rutgers University.
Give President Obama credit. As he promised in a bit of florid campaign rhetoric, he followed Osama bin Laden to the cave where he lives—in this case a high-walled compound of steel and concrete not far from the capital of Pakistan.
Characteristically restrained and innately cautious, Obama was quick to note in his remarks Sunday night that the death of bin Laden “does not mark the end of our effort” against the Al Qaeda terrorism network he led. Here the president's prudence served him well. We won’t know for a long time whether this moment will mark the beginning of the end of the war on Islamist terrorism; that will depend on the current state of Al Qaeda's strength—its wealth, numbers, organizational capabilities and other information that most of us have long since ceased paying attention to with any regularity. It’s tempting to believe that decapitating the beast of Al Qaeda will weaken it forever, or render it lifeless. But we just don’t know.
Even if bin Laden’s death doesn’t operationally cripple his network, though, it’s deeply significant in its own right. We understand our history in stories, and bin Laden was always the central protagonist of the story of September 11. It may be that we personalize our history too much, that our instinct to focus on individual heroes and villains sometimes distorts our understanding and simplifies complex realities. But personalize it we do, and there could be no satisfying resolution to our story without bin Laden’s death or capture.
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