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Osama bin Laden and America's long journey from 9/11 to 5/1

The killing of Osama bin Laden means that, for the first time in years, there may be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

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On top of all this, the financial crisis and recession hit America hard and sapped self-confidence. The cost of the wars – compounded by the costs of the financial bailout, economic stimulus, and new legislation – has left America with unprecedented levels of deficits and debt. Under President Obama, the near-successes of the “underwear bomber” and the “Times Square bomber” have reminded us that the terrorist threat has not receded. The toll on America’s psyche was palpable.

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But this brings us to May 1, 2011. It is on top of this 10-year history, and this deep sense of frustration and weariness, that news of bin Laden’s death came to the American people. A long, dark chapter is at an end.

The impact of bin Laden’s death

It will take months if not years before the impact of bin Laden’s death is fully understood. But we can offer a few ideas for starters:

•Islamist terrorism will not end overnight. But it may no longer be seen as a monolithic menace. We may again be able to distinguish the subtleties.

•Some extremists will vow to fight on, and new terrorist attacks may occur as a result. But for the majority of Muslims in the world, bin Laden is no longer some folk hero, but a radical extremist whose violent ways ultimately led to his death. That is no inspiration.

•By contrast, the real inspiration comes in the form of peaceful protests across the Arab world, by people who do not demand an extremist Islamic caliphate – but instead demand fundamental human rights and political freedoms.

•Americans may begin to come out of their self-doubt and anxiety, and restore that quintessential American determination and optimism that in years past made it the envy of the world.

Pakistan, which appears to have harbored bin Laden, will have to come to reckoning with its role in the world.

•And Afghanistan, already on a path to assume responsibility for its own security in 2014, must know that the reason for America’s involvement there in the first place has now been eliminated. More and more voices will now say it is time to move on – so Afghanistan had better be ready.

Many more lessons have yet to be learned – from 9/11; from our long war on terror; from our involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Libya. But for the first time in years, there may be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

Kurt Volker is a former US ambassador to NATO. He is now senior fellow and managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a senior adviser at McLarty Associates. A version of this essay originally appeared in Italy’s La Stampa newspaper.

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