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The bin Laden effect: How the Al Qaeda leader changed America

In life, Osama bin Laden made a huge impact on the US, all in the name of preventing another 9/11. If he and Al Qaeda fueled antagonism between the US and the Muslim world, they also pushed America toward a better understanding of the Middle East.

By Staff writer / May 7, 2011

A boy walks past a large American flag in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 13. The flag was recovered from ground zero after the 9/11 attacks. This is part of a special report in the May 16 weekly edition of The Christian Science Monitor.

AP Photo/John Kehe staff illustration

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Washington

Osama bin Laden's body was washed, wrapped in a white sheet, and placed in a weighted bag. A Navy officer made religious remarks that were translated into Arabic by a native speaker. Then a board tipped up and the body slipped the few feet from a lowered aircraft carrier elevator into the sea. In moments it was gone.

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For the United States of America the question now may be whether an era that began on 9/11 ended as the eddies stilled and the ocean closed over the corporeal remains of Al Qaeda's leader.

In life, Mr. bin Laden made a tremendous impact on the US. There's no denying that. The devastation and deaths he orchestrated 10 years ago led the nation to spend more than a trillion dollars, by one estimate, to erect a homeland security apparatus alone.

US leaders have pursued two Middle Eastern wars, wiretapped citizens without warrants, forced everyone to take off their shoes at the airport, and poured water down the faces of detainees strapped to a board – all in the name of preventing another 9/11.

Did bin Laden succeed in luring the US and the Muslim world into greater mutual antagonism? Perhaps. Yet the bin Laden decade may also have produced an important shift in the horizons of America's interests. The US government has poured money and people into trying to understand the Middle East. At the least this may help the nation adjust as Arab street revolutions burst from the chrysalides of old regimes to remake the region.

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.

Can we put bigger shampoo bottles in our carry-ons?

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?

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