When the announcement came May 1 at 11:35 p.m. ET about the death of Osama bin Laden, much of the East Coast was likely in bed. The timing was curious on two levels — not for how late the news came, because news like this couldn’t wait.
Only a few days earlier, the nation had been preoccupied with a fringe issue gone mainstream — the citizenship of President Barack Obama, thanks to the hectoring of real estate mogul Donald Trump. Obama released his long-form birth certificate on April 27, after the Hawaii State Department of Health granted an exception to release that version, so that attention could return to the budget. The next day, the president was able to deliver some lighthearted pokes to his nemesis Trump during the White House Correspondents dinner.
It was in this frivolous and contentious atmosphere that Obama dropped a bomb (interrupting “Celebrity Apprentice” in the West Coast), and he took little time in getting to it. At a live press conference from the White House, Obama greeted the world. “Good evening. 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.”
A decade of waiting
Twenty seconds. The president’s address would take an additional 9 minutes and 8 seconds, remembering September 11, 2001, before he talked about the “possible lead” that surfaced August 2010. Three minutes and 30 seconds into the speech, Obama outlined the chase into a “compound deep inside Pakistan,” later identified as Abbottabad, and described a small team that infiltrated the compound. “After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body,” he said.
When that announcement came, 1,397 soldiers had already died in Afghanistan, 4,779 in Iraq. There would be more deaths to come, including members of Navy SEAL Team Six, who would be brought down in the worst military casualties of the war in Afghanistan.
But what made the timing especially curious — incredible, even — was America’s bogeyman had been brought down four months shy of the September 11 attacks’ 10th anniversary. America erupted, celebrating on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House, Ground Zero, Times Square. College campuses thronged with revelers who had been in their single digits in 2001.
The news crackled and surged online, but the details couldn’t come fast enough as people searched for every detail, from “bin Laden informants” to “bin Laden wives.” Of keen interest was “bin Laden mansion,” No. 25 in the Abbottabad neighborhood, which the Economist described as near potato fields and residents who are “wealthy retired military folk” and layabouts funded by relatives.
Photographic proof existed and many wanted to see, although ultimately the White House refused because of the photos’ gruesome nature — and the less fodder for a jihad backlash, the better.
Jubilation and justice, qualified
Jubilation, in America and abroad, wasn’t unqualified. Der Spiegel asked, “What is just about killing a feared terrorist in his home in the middle of Pakistan?” Certainly Pakistan, America’s partner in the “war on terror,” was infuriated by a stealth operation — an invasion even — in its own sovereignty, although its righteous indignation had that edge of humiliation that came from bin Laden’s compound being within 1,000 feet of its main military academy. Its president, Asif Ali Zardari, published pointed words about Pakistan being “perhaps the world’s greatest victim of terrorism,” the “decade of cooperation and partnership,” and how his wife, Benazir Bhutto — “bin Laden’s worst nightmare” — had been assassinated by al-Qaida. (The article ran in the Washington Post in the Opinions pages; in the paper’s typical understated fashion, the author’s identity at the end of the piece is simply, “The writer is the president of Pakistan.”)
In the many questions that surfaced, another had to be asked: Was bin Laden even relevant anymore? A global poll concluded he had been “largely discredited” in Muslim nations. Intelligence officials already foresaw a “finish line” with al-Qaida. Didn’t another kind of jubilation, the one that was breaking nearly 5,000 miles away, in Tunisia, in Egypt, and two months later in Libya, underscore al-Qaida’s weakness? Would a trial have yielded more about the network?
Or, as some pointed out when he was still alive, was his death an end to a figurehead who still had social resonance and “strategic ambiguity“? After all, a message he recorded a week before his death praised the Arab spring revolt and urged freedom from “the desires of the rulers, man-made law, and Western dominance.” He had plans, unsurprisingly, of an anniversary attack. Whether bin Laden could have carried any out will never, fortunately, be known.
Among Americans, the death of Osama bin Laden was the fulfillment of a promise, at a time when so many promises seemed broken, under siege, or unfulfilled. Four months later, on September 11, Americans could gather to mourn the dead and honor the living, without his specter.
Vera H-C Chan has been the Yahoo! Year in Review editorial lead for five years running.