The New York Times called him the most wanted face of terrorism. For almost 10 years, that has been true. Islamic militants saw Osama bin Laden as a symbol of their cause, his ability to elude capture symbolized years of U.S. failure.
His death transforms the cat-and-mouse game that is the war on terror. The value of finding him and killing him without military or civilian casualties cannot be overstated.
But relying too heavily on the symbolism of that accomplishment would be a dangerous mistake, because although his smiling visage has been an ongoing provocation, bin Laden is not the whole of militant Islam.
Bin Ladens own successes were largely symbolic. Bringing down the Twin Towers did not bring down the U.S. economy, let alone all of western capitalism, and crashing a jet into the Pentagon did not diminish the might of the United States. His ability to convince disenchanted young Muslims that the 9/11 attacks had accomplished something on their behalf primarily demonstrated his ability to manipulate public sentiment.
Many Americans bought into the suggestion that their lives and liberty were seriously threatened. The unpredictable nature of terrorism seemed to require a disproportionate response. Every air traveler standing shoeless for a patdown has bin Laden to thank.
Although bin Laden remained alive and free until Sunday, triumphs have been hard for al Qaeda to come by. He produced no more unswerving planes, no flaming towers, no plummeting bodies. Instead, change came in another form. Young people who might have been susceptible to his message began to understand that their own governments, not the West, stood between them and their dreams of opportunity and freedom. Their uprisings have looked very different from those Al Qaeda tried to engineer. Awe-inspiring progress has been, and fanaticism has been consistently on the losing side. Bin Laden was not the one to alter the politics of his region; that happened without him.
Bin Ladens rose-tinged caliphate was the solace of the disenfranchised, the disempowered and the desperate, wrote Roger Cohen for the Times. A young guy with a job, a vote and prospects does not need virgins in paradise.
That statement holds profound truth but also risky idealism. World leaders should not underestimate the power of politico-religious ideology. Employed, college-educated U.S. citizens were not wholly immune to bin Ladens condemnation of western aggression and moral decay.
Americans should be relieved that Osama bin Laden is no longer alive to foment violence, but they should not mistake the symbol of a movement for the entirety of the cause. Theres more. Militant Islam has not died away.
Perhaps it can be transformed, redirected into efforts more productive and less violent. Perhaps leaders are rising right now to begin the transformation. But even with terrorisms most familiar face gone, Americans need to continue to work on hearts and minds, because symbols benevolent or malign do stand for something more.