Good people rejoice when evil monsters are cut down, and by the tens of thousands good Americans from one end of the country to the other came pouring into the streets last night to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. From the White House to Ground Zero, from the Boston Common to Miami's Little Havana, the scenes of jubilation were spontaneous, heartfelt, and overflowing with American pride.
"We love death," bin Laden once told an interviewer. "The US loves life. That is the big difference between us."
He was right. But some deaths even an American can love, and the death of the al-Qaeda mastermind who murdered so many innocent victims is one of them. For the bloodbath of 9/11, for the hundreds slaughtered in the Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings, for those who died in the unprovoked attack on the USS Cole -- for all the violent and malignant savageries he committed against men, women, and children who had done nothing to deserve them, bin Laden's day of reckoning was long overdue. But it came at last. Now the archterrorist is in hell, and Americans are rightly overjoyed. "The son of a bitch is dead. Ding dong," exults the New York Post in an editorial. Not the most refined formulation, perhaps, but it certainly captures the nation's satisfaction.
Political life in this country so often plays out as a struggle between those who champion freedom and those who fight for equality. But at moments like this we are reminded that a virtue greater than either of them is justice. In his remarks to the nation last night, President Obama emphasized that the killing of bin Laden meant that the "pursuit of justice" had been rewarded -- that "justice has been done." Knowingly or not, he was echoing the words his predecessor addressed to a joint session of Congress just nine days after the 9/11 attacks. "Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies," George W. Bush said on that occasion, "justice will be done." Ten years later, it finally was.
The political significance of bin Laden's death will give pundits, pollsters, and politicos something to chew over for months to come. The successful US operation in Abbottabad -- the Pakistani garrison town where bin Laden was apparently hiding in plain sight -- is a tremendous feather in the president's cap, and already some partisans have rushed to suggest that his re-election next year is now a foregone conclusion.
Much the same was said about George H. W. Bush after the swift American victory in the 1991 Gulf War. Bush's popularity zoomed into the 90-percent stratosphere, and the Democratic Party's strongest potential challengers -- Mario Cuomo, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt -- all decided that the 1992 nomination wasn't worth fighting for. But in the end Bush went down to a crushing defeat, and a little-known Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton became president of the United States. Obama's prospects are brighter today than they were yesterday, but between now and November 2012, anything can happen.
One of the great ironies of Barack Obama's presidency is the extent to which he has embraced and benefited from national security policies and priorities he sharply rejected as a candidate. The killing of bin Laden only deepens that irony. He was hunted down, we now know, with the help of intelligence acquired at Guantanamo -- the military prison Obama swore to shutter. He met his demise in a military operation undertaken by the United States on its own and in secret, with no multilateral consultation and no waiting for UN resolutions -- just the sort of "cowboy" unilateralism the Obama campaign opposed. What candidates say when they are seeking office is rarely a guarantee of what they will do after they have won it.
"When people see a strong horse and a weak horse," bin Laden famously said, "by nature they will like the strong horse." He was certain that America was a weak horse, spiritually impoverished, too irresolute to prevail against the forces of radical Islam. He laughed on hearing of the World Trade Center's collapse, and gloated that 9/11 had been even more successful than he expected. Now bin Laden is dead, and it is America's turn to laugh.
This is not the end of al-Qaeda, let alone of the war on terror. But it should be a little clearer today just who the strong horse is.