President Barack Obama smiled as he announced the It was a satisfied smile at a moment in which America was once again sure of its own power. It was a historic picture, just like the images of the flag-waving celebrants in front of the White House. It looked like America truly did win the war on terror, 10 years later.
The photos will take their place in the long list of iconic images that this decade of terror has produced: the American flag on Ground Zero after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; the toppled statue of Saddam Hussein after the invasion of Iraq, and later the Iraqi dictator cowering in a hole in the ground; the faces of Afghani women who were being allowed to vote for the first time; and in between, naturally, the warlord George W. Bush in his bomber jacket in front of the sign reading "Mission Accomplished."
Unfortunately, all of these images have one thing in common: They all are simply snapshots, good for appearances, nothing more. The mission was not accomplished. And even the death of Osama bin Laden will not provide a happy ending for America's tale of woe.
Because America is no longer the country it was before 9/11. That's something not even a courageous team of Navy Seals can change.
Not a Real Breakthrough
That is partially because the dead bin Laden is no longer the biggest trophy in the war against terror. There was a time when he really did appear to be the most dangerous man in the world, when the West feared every new message. Those were the months, maybe years, when no attack appeared impossible, and no airport, train station, or nuclear power plant appeared safe enough.
But those times are long gone. In the meantime, the one-time prince of terror had become just a curious relic of another age. When he appeared in his videos, clearly aged, he was no longer able to influence US elections.
His network had little to do with the recent Arab Revolution; his terror veterans have few connections to the Internet sites that have now become so important. What has become known about his final hiding place only reinforces the dreariness of bin Laden's recent existence. There was no telephone, and no Internet, and he had to burn his own garbage in order not to leave behind any evidence.
America learned a long time ago how to live with his threat. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat : "They can strike us, they can wound us, they can kill us ... But they are not, and never will be, an existential threat."
This view is actually a positive development. But it also means that the death of bin Laden cannot be viewed as a real breakthrough.
A Beleaguered America
"We are a beleaguered America," the columist Howard Fineman summed up in the Huffington Post after the operation in Abbottabad. As proof, one simply needs to add up the numbers. At least 3,000 people died at the hands of mass-murderer bin Laden, and all efforts were justified to find him. But Washington didn't just begin a search for a criminal. Instead, it launched one of the largest campaigns for retribution in history.
On the American side, there have been about 6,000 dead US soldiers, not to mention $1.3 trillion in new federal debt that is attributed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the real costs will likely be much higher. The US has accumulated a total debt burden of over $14 trillion, even though it was running a budget surplus just 10 years ago. The seemingly most powerful country in the world has to be worried about the prospect of having to officially declare insolvency before too long.
America has become so caught up in a culture of fear and anxiety that it spends more on defense than all other countries put together. And it is caught up in wars that it cannot win -- and which it no longer wants to fight, if one believes American opinion polls about the war in Afghanistan.
Greater Fear of Debt than of Terrorism
Of course, security is a country's most important right. But in the search of it, the United States has so far overshot the mark that its citizens have long had a greater fear of debt than of terrorism.
And while America was busy crippling itself, China racked up annual economic growth of almost 10 percent. According to the IMF, China, America's primary rival, will become the world's biggest economy sooner than expected, by 2016. Beijing has plenty of time to make strategic decisions, such as investing in green technologies. America is still debating in Congress whether or not climate change is real or imagined.
The US is still at the forefront of spending on election campaigns. The next US president will need about $1 billion to spend on aggressive advertising spots and smear campaigns against rivals, partly because the 9/11 attacks did not unify the country, but rather further drove the people apart. And while he was working out the final details of the bin Laden operation, Obama had to publicly release his full birth certificate last week, to dispel his detractors' claims that he is not a real American.
Amid the joyful frenzy in the US, all of this can be temporarily forgotten, and even Bush's Vice President Dick Cheney is now showing Obama respect. The president's triumph will bring him a short political breather. But he can't undo the lost American decade.
Perhaps the decade would have gone a little differently if US soldiers had killed bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora in 2001. But the prince of terror disappeared for 10 years. And with his escape, he likely caused the Americans more damage than through anything else since 9/11.