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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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