Debate over civil liberties in a time of war seared Washington, yet helped define American values for a new age. US intelligence failed to stop the attacks of 9/11, but it remade itself into a more efficient machine for an era when timely information may count as much as military firepower.
Yes, bin Laden was mostly a symbol of Al Qaeda when the US finally caught him, and the decentralized organization he inspired survives. But symbols can be important. His removal may make it easier for the US to ease away from terrorism-centric foreign- and national-security policies. And with their bearded bogeyman gone, Americans may realize not that they have less to fear, but that their fear of what he represented had begun to subside long ago.
"What this really does in some ways is allow many Americans some degree of closure and give us a chance to move slightly past the incredibly fraught, incredibly strange, and heated decade that we have just gone through," said Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs, in a May 2 Council on Foreign Relations conference call for reporters.
Bin Laden's most obvious effect on America may be this: A generation has grown up with no memory of ever walking unchecked onto an airplane, or of greeting an air traveler at the gate. The institution of security to eliminate soft targets has cost billions and changed the face of the nation. Remember when Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House used to be open to autos?