1. Hooray. It is almost never right to celebrate a death. Almost.
2. The speech. When listening to Obama's statement in real time (at a tavern in Southern California, with my sisters and brother after a memorial service) I thought it might be too long and detailed for the circumstances. All the other big-screen TVs in the place, which had been carrying sports or reality shows, were suddenly silenced so that one carrying Obama could be heard. In that unlikely but representative setting, attention seemed to be flagging a minute or two before the president had finished speaking. But hearing excerpts on the radio as I drove home, I was more impressed by the craftsmanship and necessity of most parts of the speech. We will discuss this for a long time, but on short notice this was an effective presentation of both details and theme. The tone, which was sober rather than exultant, was also appropriate. Video is here, and below. [*See Update at bottom]
3. Emphasizing continuity. Good for Obama in going out of his way to stress, at both the beginning and end of the statement, the unified mood of the country ten years ago, and to try to summon it again. To his credit, he also several times emphasized the continuity of effort against al Qaeda over the past decade (while pointedly omitting any mention of the invasion of Iraq as part of the long effort against al Qaeda). To his further shrewdness and credit, he invoked his predecessor by name when mentioning one of George W. Bush's bravest and most important statements: "As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not -- and never will be -- at war with Islam. I've made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam."
Good for Bush and his own statement, including saying that after Obama called him with the news, "I congratulated him and the men and women of our military and intelligence communities who devoted their lives to this mission. They have our everlasting gratitude."
Obviously there are going to be partisan implications of this news, many of which are tempting to tick off right now. It's reassuring that at least on the night of the news most major partisans avoided openly going into them.
4. 'Justice'. Further Bush/Obama resonance: In the best speech of his presidency, his address to the Joint Session of Congress nine days after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush used this most memorable line: "Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." Both Bush and Obama echoed that line tonight. Bush, in his statement: "the fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done." Obama, in his speech:
"On nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda's terror: Justice has been done.
Tonight, we give thanks to the countless intelligence and counterterrorism professionals who've worked tirelessly to achieve this outcome. The American people do not see their work, nor know their names. But tonight, they feel the satisfaction of their work and the result of their pursuit of justice."
5. The potential significance: an end to the distortions of the GWOT? For years anti-terrorism experts have stressed the decentralized, self-sustaining nature of al Qaeda and related terrorist organizations around the world. The elimination of the celebrated symbol and inspiration of the movement will certainly not mean the end of terrorist threats, and in the short run could trigger revenge attacks. (I will be leaving from LAX tomorrow morning; will be interesting to see whether the security drill is different in any way.)
But here is potentially the greatest significance of this news, apart from the "bringing justice to our enemies" satisfaction: it holds the potential of marking an end to the otherwise un-endable "Global War or Terror."
Signifying an end to a "global war" does not mean the end of a threat. America faces a daily threat from crime; for the foreseeable future Americans and others will face a continuing threat of terrorist attack; the entire world faces a threat that the thousands of nuclear warheads still in existence could destroy millions, through accidental or deliberate misuse. But we classify all those as threats, requiring our continued vigilance and best efforts to prevent them. Rather than as ongoing, open-ended wars with the consequent distortions that wars can impose on our values, institutions, and public lives.
As long as the "Global War on Terror" was defined as eliminating all threat of terrorist activity, it could never be ended. That threat -- like other threats -- will never completely go away. But if this admittedly symbolic victory in the "war" can be taken as closing a loop opened ten years ago (and earlier, with previous OBL-inspired attacks), perhaps it could free us to continue the vigilance while beginning to correct the decade-long warping of our values. That is another gift the commandos who carried out this mission may have given America. We will see whether Obama is willing to lead that way, and others are willing to follow.
6. God save us. If there was ever a speech that could have ended without the rote-autotext conclusion Barack Obama now tacks onto virtually every public statement, it was this one. Indeed the speech had an absolutely perfect ending before the now-obligatory one Obama added on.
"Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. [Done! Great. Perfect ending. But, what, you're still going on??? Oh no....]
Thank you. May God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America."
7. Hooray. This is heartening news in its own right, and even more so if it might mark the beginning of the end of a period in which America felt that it had to change its essential nature and values in order to be safe. We're never going to be completely safe, but perhaps this will be the occasion for talking again about the long-term balance between our values as a free people and our ability to defend ourselves.
Update: The blogger who writes as Fabius Maximus has a much harsher assessment of the news and President Obama's presentation of it. Judge for yourself. On reflection I do agree that a middle part of the speech, which FM annotates, was more personalized than it should have been. Although you can make a case for each specific "I ordered this" "I determined that" statement, together there are too many of them. Still, the overall tone was right.