After a decade of Osama bin Laden, the lessons he taught us crystallized over the weekend, a week after his death at the hands of the U.S. military. They became clear when the Obama Administration released some of his homemade videos. Administration officials said they showed bin Laden to be a hands-on leader of al Qaeda, still in control of Terror, Inc. Not quite.
The late Osama bin Laden has taught us three things:
— The first lesson bin Laden taught us happened nearly 10 years ago, on the blue-skied September 11, when his foot soldiers killed nearly 3,000 people on U.S. soil. It was a wakeup call – the alarms had been buzzing for years, when he bombed our East African embassies in 1998, and attacked the USS Cole in 2000 — but 9/11 was different. Sure, we had ignored the warning signs, and failed to take prudent precautions – like locking doors for airline cockpits. So bin Laden showed us that there is a suicidal, irrational hatred out there, something we hadn’t seen in the West since Adolf Hitler. (More at TIME.com: Photos of 50 years of the Navy Seals)
— The second lesson bin Laden taught us happened a week ago Monday morning in Abbottabad, Pakistan, when the Navy SEALs got their man. He taught us that the U.S. and its citizenry, when provoked, will not be thwarted in their quest for their sense of justice. This accounted for the joy among young people, who had spent half their lives living in bin Laden’s shadow. Their celebrations and cheering, in front of the White House and across the country, were not crass so much as an simple exhalation of relief. I was that age when an American walked on the Moon for the first time. I felt the similarities in these two events, separated by more than 40 years. This is one small shot for a man, the SEAL felt as he pulled his trigger, one giant leap for mankind.
— Finally, the most important of the three lessons surfaced on Saturday, as the Pentagon released those videos, especially the one where an aging and blanketed bin Laden looks upward toward a small TV screen displaying his image.
Although the U.S. government released no audio track to go with the videos, you can almost hear bin Laden channeling Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond. I am big, he is saying to himself. It’s the pictures that got small.
Indeed, based on available intelligence, this leader of an international jihad, designed to recreate the caliphate, was a prisoner in his own house. Unlike typical prisoners, the walls of bin Laden’s compound weren’t built to keep him in, but to keep others – visually, as well as physically – out. Someone cowering in fear like that, even post-mortem, only prevails if we cower in fear as well. (The Canines of War: Photos of the military’s dog soldiers)
The U.S. under-reacted to bin Laden before 9/11, and over-reacted to him beginning the next day. The resulting pall over the country belittles America and its can-do attitude that is at the heart of the American ethos. Yes, there are real terror threats out there, and we cannot eliminate them all. But we need to learn, in the wake of bin Laden’s demise, to keep things in perspective. When the terrorists strike again – and they will – we need to be able to shrug it off.
We cannot get there by building bigger and better defenses, or by doubling military budgets. We can’t get there by hyping every possible threat by always seeking comment from people who have a vested interest in hyping every possible threat. Look around the nation. Government facilities across the country are now hemmed in by walls, bollards, guards, fences, and barbed wire, designed to keep the terrorists at bay. When you think about it, we are running the risk of becoming bin Laden, penned in by fear and determined to keep the infidels away.