Jon Meacham: After bin Laden’s death, will Obama seize the opportunity to move forward?

It was a good day for flying. American Airlines Flight 11, nonstop from Boston to LAX, took off at 7:59 eastern time on Tuesday, September 11, 2001. The rest of the story is in the words of Madeline “Amy” Sweeney, one of the flight attendants still on a phone line:

“Something is wrong. We are in a rapid descent … we are all over the place.” It was about 8:44. “We are flying low. We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low.” A pause, then: “Oh my God we are way too low.” Flight 11 struck the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46:40, and the world changed.

The chapter of American life that began with Sweeney’s horrified report on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, ended on Sunday, May 1, 2011, when American military forces killed Osama bin Laden. His death is welcome and long overdue: the failure to capture or kill him sooner flummoxed three presidential administrations, from Clinton to Obama.

There are hours in the life of a nation, and of the world, which force an examination of familiar assumptions and offer a largely sclerotic political culture an opportunity to adjust course. This is one. Two wars were begun in the shadow of bin Laden’s attacks, one in Afghanistan, the other in Iraq; the former drags on interminably. Our relations with Pakistan are such that the White House did not inform its government before the assault on bin Laden’s compound. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction remains urgent, disturbing and maddeningly uncontrollable. The events of the Arab Spring give hope; Moammar Gadhafi’s durability in Libya gives pause.

Among the most exciting of such possibilities is that the killing of bin Laden will give President Obama the political room to underscore issues of investment that are not traditionally thought of in national-security terms. From education to infrastructure to debt, Americans have much to do, and the distinction between domestic concerns and foreign ones is largely a false one: as President Obama well knows, no great military power has remained so in the absence of economic power.

On that distant Tuesday in 2001, Peter Hanson was a passenger on United Flight 175, the plane that hit the south tower nearly 20 minutes after Amy Sweeney’s American Airlines jet struck the north tower. In a call to his father, Lee, seconds before the end, Peter said: “It’s getting bad, Dad. A stewardess was stabbed … It’s getting very bad on the plane… I think we are going down … Don’t worry, Dad – if it happens, it’ll be very fast – my God. My God.”

It did happen. Now as then, the country needs to fight to keep others from suffering the same fate, and fight to become the best country we can be. Hokey? Maybe. But it has the virtue of being true.

 
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Comments

  • c brunk

    Mr Meacham,

    Your opinion piece represents the problem with much political discourse

    in the U.S. You have inaccurately connected the temporal sequence of

    events in order incorrectly attribute blame.

    The chapter of American life that began with Sweeney’s horrified report on

    Tuesday, September 11, 2001, ended on Sunday, May 1, 2011, when American

    military forces killed Osama bin Laden. His death is welcome and long overdue:

    the failure to capture or kill him sooner flummoxed three presidential

    administrations, from Clinton to Obama.

    “The chapter of American life that began … Tuesday, September 11, 2001, [and]

    ended on Sunday, May 1, 2011″ span only two administrations George W. Bush’s

    and Barack Obama’s. George W. Bush was sworn in as president on January 20, 2001,

    seven months before the chapter you refer to began.

    “Two wars were begun in the shadow of bin Laden’s attacks, one in Afghanistan, the

    other in Iraq; the former drags on interminably.”

    War is an active endeavor, not something that passively begins without a specific

    instigator as you imply. George W. Bush started these both these wars. It is difficult

    to understand why you referred by name only to the Clinton and Obama administrations,

    and not to the Bush administration that took the United States to war, and failed for 8

    years to bring bin Laden to justice.

    Your piece is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s linkage of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq

    with the September 11th attacks. It is a distortion. It is unconscionable for a historian

    and journalist to so misrepresent historical fact.

  • c brunk

    Mr Meacham,

    Your opinion piece represents the problem with much political discourse

    in the U.S. You have inaccurately connected the temporal sequence of

    events in order incorrectly attribute blame.

    The chapter of American life that began with Sweeney’s horrified report on

    Tuesday, September 11, 2001, ended on Sunday, May 1, 2011, when American

    military forces killed Osama bin Laden. His death is welcome and long overdue:

    the failure to capture or kill him sooner flummoxed three presidential

    administrations, from Clinton to Obama.

    “The chapter of American life that began … Tuesday, September 11, 2001, [and]

    ended on Sunday, May 1, 2011″ span only two administrations George W. Bush’s

    and Barack Obama’s. George W. Bush was sworn in as president on January 20, 2001,

    seven months before the chapter you refer to began.

    “Two wars were begun in the shadow of bin Laden’s attacks, one in Afghanistan, the

    other in Iraq; the former drags on interminably.”

    War is an active endeavor, not something that passively begins without a specific

    instigator as you imply. George W. Bush started these both these wars. It is difficult

    to understand why you referred by name only to the Clinton and Obama administrations,

    and not to the Bush administration that took the United States to war, and failed for 8

    years to bring bin Laden to justice.

    Your piece is reminiscent of the Bush administration’s linkage of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq

    with the September 11th attacks. It is a distortion. It is unconscionable for a historian

    and journalist to so misrepresent historical fact.