In early May 2011, we learned that a special Navy Seal team had attacked a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, located, and killed, Osama Bin Laden. In many ways, Osama Bin Laden has had a presence in our minds ever since September 11, 2001, when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers.
As the mastermind behind that event and many others, Bin Laden was a lingering threat to our lives and our livelihood and top-of-mind in all of our travels and at every TSA checkpoint. The ‘Global War on Terror’ was omnipresent with different colored alerts telling us the threat level.
Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, I remember being constantly reminded about the threat of nuclear weapons with drills in elementary and junior high school where we were directed into the hallways and stacked against the wall in groups of four with our arms folded over our heads, our eyes closed as if we might prepare for the impact of a nuclear bomb near our school. I even remember neighbors who dug bomb shelters deep into their yards so they could escape an attack and sit in their shelters until it was safe to exit.
Fortunately, at the end of the Cold War, the signing of the Nuclear Forces Treaty in 1987, the falling of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the subsequent democratization of the governments of Hungary, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, and ultimately, the Soviet Union—all of these transformations ended the greater threat of nuclear holocaust.
The ‘Global War on Terror’ may also be reaching a transformational phase with the death of Bin Laden and the citizen revolts across the Middle East from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, to Syria to Bahrain, Jordan and Yemen.
While still inhabited by tribes and religious sects with many differences, people have grown weary of political dictatorships and the tyranny and oppression under which they have lived. That tyranny and oppression has fueled terrorist activity against the United States and its assets around the world. It may be that when that oppression has been lifted, the anger and frustration with the United States will diminish over time.
We will not know about the longer term impact of the changes occurring throughout the Middle East. It may be that one dictator will simply be replaced by another. It may result in a different tribal leader taking control simply to get even for the violence that their tribe experienced. Or, it may be that democracy will begin to grow that allows people to play a greater role in their own future and take part in building their countries to become more participative and competitive in the world marketplace.
How the United States responds in this changing world is critically important to our future. How we choose what side or who to support or even whether we should choose to support anyone or any group while those transformations are taking place are perplexing considerations. How soon we should act or how long we should wait before acting are also critical questions to examine.
Over the last decade, we have undergone our own transformation in how we view terrorist threats. We’ve even changed the rhetoric to describe it, backing away from the phrase ‘Global War on Terror,’ advocating the use of ‘Overseas Contingency Operation’ instead. As one defense policy think tank executive put it, “We are facing a number of different insurgencies around the globe—some have local causes, some of them are transnational. Viewing them all through one lens distorts the picture and magnifies the enemy.”
We cannot do away with the TSA checkpoints or the Department of Homeland Security. Nor can we remove the threat of terrorists regardless of the changes that we are witnessing. Al Qaeda has not been dismantled and terrorists will still do evil deeds. At the same time, when we walk through the TSA checkpoints, we are less likely to think about the next message from Osama Bin Laden or fear for planes flying into tall buildings.
We are witnesses to history. How we act in the midst these transformational changes will substantially affect our future. It is important that we share our experience in this democracy so that others may learn about its successes and failures so that we may learn to work and live tolerantly on this earth together.