article

05.02.11

Osama Death Will Reopen America's 9/11 Wounds

Bin Laden’s death will remind America of everything it has sacrificed in the decade since 9/11—making the moment not only an opportunity to rejoice, but a time to grieve what the nation has irretrievably lost.

Bin Laden is dead.  There is jubilation in the streets. Finally, as President Obama told the American people and the world late last night, justice has been done. Bin Laden’s demise is a message to the globe that evil, of the kind bin Laden represented, will not be tolerated by the United States.   

Photos: Osama bin Laden Timeline

But this is not just a day to rejoice. Today, we are reminded of everything that we have lost in the decade since the 9/11 strikes. Al Qaeda and its affiliates targeted innocents all over the globe—not just the 2,977 casualties on American soil on September 11, but tens of thousands more all over the world. The vast majority of those killed were Muslims.  

Does the death of bin Laden mean the war on terror is over? The answer is no. The Pakistani Taliban, the organization that took credit for Faisal Shahzad’s failed car-bomb attack on Times Square a year ago, has already promised reprisals against both Pakistan and America. It seems quite likely that al Qaeda affiliates and lone wolf sympathizers will see bin Laden’s death as an opportunity and an inspiration for further acts of violence.

The killing of bin Laden is what psychologists call a trigger.

But there is another kind of war on terror—the terror we have felt internally since the 9/11 bombings. The killing of bin Laden is what psychologists call a trigger. For those whose family members were killed or harmed by bin Laden’s many plots, or who witnessed al Qaeda’s attacks first hand, bin Laden’s death will likely reignite the terror they experienced in the past, bringing the past into the present in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, and a feeling of depersonalization. Experts who study the aftermath of trauma have found, in study after study, that significant reminders of past terrors reopen the original wound—not only as a memory, but also in the form of hypervigilance, dissociation, and paralyzing bodily pain. Those who lost loved ones on 9/11 and its aftermath are different people from who they were before the terrorist strikes. Their lives began anew on that day. They will never be the same. And today is a reminder of their loss—not only of their loved ones, but also of their own former identities.  

To some extent, this is true for all Americans. America, too, changed as a result of the 9/11 attacks. We went to war in Iraq to retaliate for the 9/11 strikes and to prevent Saddam Hussein from using his alleged WMD arsenal against us. Since 9/11, nearly 6,000 U.S. troops have died in the wars on terrorism. Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz have estimated that the total cost of the war in Iraq alone, including its impact on the economy, is at least $3 trillion. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research says that the cost of treating soldiers’ psychological wounds will be $1.5 billion to $2.7 billion for combat-induced PTSD. Service members who volunteer for war know that they are at increased risk of death.  But they and their family members may not realize that death for service members can come in unexpected ways, including from what the military now calls “moral injury,” for example, the shame that troops feel from having participated in or witnessed the death of civilians abroad. The Department of Defense reports 1,917 suicides between the years 2001 and 2009 among active duty military personnel. For veterans, the figures are even higher. More than 6,000 veterans take their lives every year, representing about 20 percent of American suicides annually.  

Beyond the war in Iraq, and the terrible costs imposed on service members sent abroad to defend American lives, bin Laden’s death reminds us of how much we have changed as a nation. We made compromises in our values that would have been unthinkable before 9/11. But our country and our values were under attack. We did what we had to do in order to survive, or so we thought. The nature of the threat has made it imperative for the FBI to focus on thwarting attacks before they occur, rather than just responding to them. That, in turn, has caused us to make compromises in some citizens’ civil liberties. We felt compelled to torture suspects, or to look the other way when others practiced torture. “War is cruelty and you cannot refine it,” as General Sherman once said. Consequentialist arguments were made, and for many, they were persuasive. Nonetheless, the ethical compromises we made as a nation changed us, and the killing of bin Laden reminds us of what we have lost.  

Yes, the president is right: Justice has been done. And yes, there is reason to be jubilant. But bin Laden’s death also reminds us of how much we have sacrificed to fight the wars on terrorism. And for that, we have much to grieve.  

Jessica Stern is a member of the Hoover Institution Task Force on National Security and Law, and the author of Denial: A Memoir of Terror. Formerly, she served as a staff member of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration.