After bin Laden | Scot Lehigh

The long reach of 9/11

By Scot Lehigh
Globe Columnist / May 4, 2011

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IT’S A better world now that a team of Navy SEALS has killed Osama bin Laden. A better world, but not a different world. It’s not the world we had, or rather thought we had, before Sept. 11, 2001.

Shortly after the planes hit that day, I wandered, stunned, to the Boston Common. No one knew the full extent of the threat. President Bush had been in Florida when the attack occurred, and it wasn’t yet clear when he could return safely to Washington. State government buildings had been closed, and people were standing there dazed, trying to comprehend what had happened.

“I just can’t grasp it,’’ one woman said. “It is sort of surreal right now.’’

Nearby, a man wept. I spoke to a German tourist, who hadn’t yet heard the news. She and her companion were departing soon for Maine, she said, instantly and obviously relieved to be leaving the city.

A television had been set up in the window of the Last Hurrah restaurant, and a crowd had gathered there, silently watching the images that would soon be seared into our psyche.

Terrorism wasn’t new to this country, certainly. The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, by domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh, had killed 168 people and wounded hundreds more. Nor was terrorism by Islamic extremists a new phenomenon in the world. Our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania had been bombed, the USS Cole attacked. We’d suffered the 1993 attempt to blow up the World Trade Center with a truck bomb. But that hadn’t succeeded. And despite the spate of attacks on US interests abroad, Americans hadn’t thought of themselves as in peril.

On that terrible morning, everything changed. Suddenly the age of terrorism had dawned. The Sept. 11 attack was a formative experience for many of today’s young people, an introduction to atrocity that was as shocking as Pearl Harbor had been for their great grandparents. The specter of Sept. 11 is something they have lived with for most of their lives.

So it was a grim satisfaction to walk though the Common this week knowing that the man who orchestrated the attack has finally been brought to justice. Or rather, that justice has finally been brought to him. And, honestly, knowing that bin Laden hadn’t been obliterated in a split second by a bomb, but rather had lived long enough to know that the United States had tracked him down.

Bin Laden’s continued existence rankled not solely because of the enormity of what he and Al Qaeda had done. His ability to elude us, and his periodic taped messages threatening new violence, had made him a symbol of defiance. He was a man who had been able to wound this country with seeming impunity, and for some in the Muslim world, that had made him, at least for a time, a hero.

That said, his allure had clearly faded in recent years. Polling in the Arab world showed a precipitous decline in the way he was viewed. Nor is Al Qaeda’s theocratic thuggery relevant to the vision that has propelled the Arab Spring. Let’s hope his death ends whatever romantic appeal remained for young Muslim men, while sending the message that this country will stay doggedly on the trail of terrorists, no matter how long it takes. And that intelligence gleaned from the raid will help us track down more members of the Al Qaeda coterie.

But what bin Laden’s death can’t and won’t do is bring back something Americans long for: the state of mind before Sept. 11, a time when concerns about terrorism weren’t at the back of your mind every time you flew, a time before periodic terrorist attempts, even though unsuccessful, regularly remind us of the threat. A time before ubiquitous security checkpoints and omnipresent metal detectors.

Al Qaeda has enough offshoots and adherents that killing bin Laden won’t end the threat. Yes, Sunday was a good day for America. But we won’t return to the age of false innocence before Sept. 11. We won’t because we know we can’t.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at