How bin Laden's Death Unites Us

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The fall of our shared enemy should remind us, no matter our politics, of what we have in common  

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Almost a decade ago, Americans banded together in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Before the 9/11 conspiracy theories, the invasion of Afghanistan, the PATRIOT Act, the prison at Gitmo, the divisive debate over Iraq, Code Pink, Abu Ghraib, the Mission Accomplished banner, and every other controversy related to the War on Terrorism, we agreed that a grave wrong had been done us, and that justice demanded the mastermind's death.

Osama bin Laden is now dead. As that news spread, Americans reacted in ways that befit a free people. Some took to the streets to celebrate. Others marked the moment in somber remembrance of innocents murdered. Family members of the 9/11 dead found a small measure of closure. Insofar as there were dissenters, they lamented American excesses in the War on Terrorism, especially the innocents killed. And even those voices noted, "I'm glad we got him... he clearly deserved to die."

Osama Bin LadenTen years on, the death of Osama bin Laden reminds us that for all our differences, Americans remain united against the enemy. Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama all publicly celebrated this achievement. CAIR and World Net Daily welcomed bin Laden's elimination. On most matters, Rush Limbaugh wants President Obama to fail, but even he is surely going to celebrate this news.

This clarifying moment won't last. Early Monday morning, there was already renewed debate about our foreign policy, as is appropriate: where there are genuinely held disagreements, forceful arguments are necessary. Insofar as the killing of bin Laden bears on the War on Terrorism and the performance of President Obama, it must by necessity become a politicized matter.

As we unite around the notion that Osama bin Laden's death was both just and long overdue, however, a small subset of our citizenry ought to feel exposed and shamed. These are the voices who've needlessly divided us over the past decade by muddying the bright line that separates our fellow Americans from the enemy. In doing so, they helped turn the War on Terrorism into a political cudgel, doing damage to the quality of our public discourse and the policies that result.

The guilty parties know no single ideology. On the left, there were conspiracy theorists who insisted that George W. Bush was complicit in the attacks of 9/11. Filmmaker Michael Moore stoke these theories with his irresponsible film "Fahrenheit 9/11." Markos Moulitsas wrote a book premised on the argument that American conservatives are almost indistinguishable "in their tactics and on the issues" from the Taliban. On the right, various voices have attacked their ideological adversaries in equally egregious ways -- none more embarrassingly (today, that is) than certain folks who disparaged President Obama. I am a staunch critic of his policies in the War on Terrorism. Like many civil libertarians, I sometimes regard his actions to be unconstitutional, criminal, or both.

In this moment of triumph, none of that changes. But it ought to be an awkward moment for Obama critics who say he is afraid to take unilateral action against America's enemies. And the embarrassment they feel should pale in comparison to those who've implied that he is somehow on the enemy's side.

The quintessential example is Andy McCarthy, whose scurrilous attacks on American attorneys I recently criticized. His bestselling book asserts that "the left" is allied with our Islamist enemy in "a grand jihad" against America. "By the Left, I mean the modern hard Left led by President Obama," he explained to National Review. "And when I say Islamists and leftists work together, I mean they have an alliance, not that they've merged." This thesis has always been nonsense. But in this moment, Barack Obama having presided over military operations that killed Osama bin Laden, can we agree that any critic who insists the president leads an alliance with our Islamist enemy to sabotage America should be a universal laughingstock?

The War on Terrorism isn't ending with bin Laden's death. Even an earnest debate about how it ought to be waged is bound to become heated: the stakes are high and the disagreements intense. If nothing else, however, today is an opportunity to remind ourselves -- contrary to the irresponsible people who suggest otherwise -- that the entire Washington establishment and nearly every last American, whatever their place on the political spectrum, is ultimately united against the enemy. It is human nature to lose sight of that basic fact, but very much in the national interest for us to resist doing so.

Image credit: Eric Thayer/Reuters


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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