Is this how we imagined it?

Ten years have passed since the warm September morning that became the most devastating day in the history of the United States. It is hardly possible to bring ourselves back to that moment and remember exactly how we felt. We recall where we were, to be sure. Who we were talking to. What we had for breakfast that morning, and what plans we cancelled that evening. But ten years removed from the abject horror we faced that day, the fact is that the terror, grief, and overpowering vulnerability we experienced have, to our relief, faded into memory.

Still, imagine what was on your mind as we watched those terrible events unfold and began the long process of picking up the pieces. For many Americans, retribution was high on the list, and justifiably so. Out of the literal and figurative dust emerged one man who came to embody all the evil of September 11: the man who choreographed the massacre and rejoiced in its aftermath, Osama bin Laden. Many of us had never heard his name before, and many of us didn’t care. The crosshairs of a nation had descended upon him, and he deserved all the wrath we could muster.

Imagine now that you were given the chance to see into the future, to glimpse the moment when victory was achieved and Osama was finally dispatched. What would this moment look like?

It would take almost a decade, over which time Osama would be reduced to little more than a figurehead, appearing periodically and mysteriously as if to taunt us and remind us of our failure to bring him down. It would take our involvement in two major wars and numerous smaller-scale military actions. It would take hundreds of billions of dollars at a time when the nation faced a precipitous economic collapse. It would take the lives of thousands of our brave men and women in uniform, not to mention the countless civilians caught in the crossfire as their countries were reduced to rubble. It would chase the United States from the moral heights we had proudly claimed for centuries, and decimate its credibility on the international stage. It would divide our nation along party lines, religious faults, cultural differences, and ethnic divides.

Is this the glorious moment we envisioned in the hours following 9/11? Or does this vision belong to someone else…someone like Osama himself?

As a terrorist with no government and no borders to contain him, Osama was also free from the constraints of what we know as morality and civilized behavior. He would never have a conventional army at his disposal, never have the force of a nation and its people behind him. So like all terrorists, he took a different approach. Aside from major catastrophes such as 9/11 – which tragically exceeded even his wildest expectations – he would inflict upon us death by a thousand cuts.

Central to this strategy was the committal of vast American resources and manpower to the Middle East. Rather than take the fight to us here, where any victories would be costly and short-lived, Osama would exhaust our willpower and our treasury through a prolonged game of hide-and-seek in the deserts of Aghanistan. Along the way, he would leverage our ever-increasing presence in the region into a reliable source of support, as anti-American resentment festered in the Persian Gulf. He would force us to fight the battle on his terms, wearing us down day by day, death by death, and dollar by dollar.

Unfortunately for us, that plan has worked almost to perfection.

Yes, Osama is dead. al-Qaeda has lost its leader and the terrorist underworld has been stripped of an all-too-charismatic source of inspiration. He was a supreme coward and thoroughly evil man who committed the worst kind of atrocities imaginable, and the world is a far better place without him. The Navy SEALs who carried out the raid did so nearly flawlessly, by all accounts, and they deserve our respect and admiration for eradicating one of our most wicked enemies.

But what price are we paying for the manner in which we chose to eliminate him? As we celebrate the fact that he is gone, are we overlooking the fact that in many ways, the narrative we have composed for ourselves does not quite ring true?

We claim that our military is the strongest in the world, capable of achieving any objective, yet it took us ten years to track down and kill a man living a medieval lifestyle in the caves of the Middle East – or alternatively, in a country to which we send billions of dollars in aid.

We claim that our economy will sustain us in any conflict, yet we teeter on the verge of bankruptcy and find ourselves buried by a seemingly insurmountable debt.

We claim that our values and principles will always see us through, yet we torture and abuse and lie about doing so, even as the evidence stares us in the face.

We claim that the freedoms we hold dear set us apart, yet our government has bullied us into believing it can spy on and kidnap its citizens at will, and we cannot even fly on an airplane without being groped and assaulted by its agents.

Yes, Osama is dead, but how much of his agenda did we unwittingly accomplish over the last ten years?

And perhaps most importantly of all, for all of the bloodshed and sacrifice endured, there is no guarantee that we are even any safer. For all the enemies we have slain, we continue to create more through our misguided efforts in the name of national security. We continue to prop up dictators who may be tyrants and may even turn on us tomorrow. We still play both sides of dozens of civil wars and political feuds around the world, sending aid and promising both factions our support but satisfying no one. We still believe we are entitled to occupy sovereign lands with no fear of retribution, despite the fact that the same actions committed by a foreign power in our backyard would be perceived as offensive and unmistakably hostile.

These are the kinds of behaviors that allow the Osamas of the world to threaten us, and this is what needs to change if our nation is to survive. We celebrate now, but his ghost will continue to haunt us as long as we engage in the type of conduct that emboldens our enemies and makes heroes of those who would harm us. People don’t hijack airplanes and massacre innocents in a faraway land because they’re opposed to some vague notion of the freedoms that land enjoys.

We didn’t invite or deserve 9/11, and the events of that day can never be rationalized or justified in any way. As an era comes to an end with the death of Osama, however, we need to do more than just applaud our perseverance and resolve. If we are to fulfill the promise we made ten years ago, that there will never again be a 9/11, we need to take a hard look in the mirror and make sure that as we win these battles, we are not ultimately losing the war.

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