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As we approach the 10-year anniversary of 9-11, Andrew Sullivan reflects on Osama bin Laden’s war on America.

So did bin Laden succeed? Not at all. On most fronts, he spectacularly failed—down to the amazing end to his pathetic, deranged life. He didn’t banish American influence or occupation in the Middle East; he temporarily intensified it. His dream of a caliphate is more remote than ever. But in this, it wasn’t the U.S. who defeated him; it was his own brutality and nihilism. From the streets of Tehran to Cairo, it appears that the young Muslim generation does not want to withdraw from the modern world into a cultural and intellectual blind alley forever. They are too busy on Twitter. That’s why after 9/11, Al Qaeda saw its popularity in the Arab world plummet, resuscitated only by American floundering in a newly anarchic Iraq.

The American people, moreover, eventually responded by electing Barack Hussein Obama as their president, committed to stepping back from what bin Laden had always longed for, a civilizational war, while quietly trying new methods like drone warfare to target jihadists from a distance with ever-increasing accuracy. The political model Al Qaeda celebrates—of stultifying premodern, brain-dead oppression—has no serious global appeal compared with Western or Asian models of capitalism. Instead, Turkey’s and Indonesia’s evolutions have shown a different way forward for Islamist democratic politics. It’s time we fessed up: the madmen of 9/11 were not the Soviets; they were not the Nazis. If we had seen them in that calm perspective a decade ago, we would be living in a very different America today.

Bin Laden and his henchmen failed, in other words. But our own fear won. Fear stopped us, overwhelmed us, as our ra-tion-al-ity deserted us. Yes, it was understandable, given what we endured that September morning. But we need to admit that our response was close to fatal. A bankrupted America that tortured innocents and disregarded its own Constitution is barely recognizable as America.


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