Amy Gehrt: Justice has been done

Amy Gehrt

“Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children.”

With those words late Sunday night, President Barack Obama brought a very painful chapter of American history to a close — ending a nearly decade-long manhunt for the most-wanted man in the world.

Like the vast majority of Americans, I will never forget where I was when I first heard about a plane hitting the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 — or the myriad feelings that flooded through me when I saw the second plane hit and knew it was no accident but rather an intentional attack on our country. The images that followed over the next minutes, hours, days and weeks still continue to haunt us all.

Now the agonizing memories forever cemented in our collective consciousness have been joined by knowledge that the man responsible for the unspeakable tragedy we witnessed has, at long last, paid the ultimate price for his crimes.

As with 9/11, the rush of emotion I felt upon hearing of bin Laden’s death will be something I remember until my dying day. The initial mixture of disbelief and shock slowly gave way to feelings of relief and, yes, even a bit of happiness as I realized the terrorist mastermind who took such undisguised pleasure in killing thousands of innocent victims is no longer able to walk the earth spewing his vitriolic, hateful rhetoric.

I’m not usually the type of person to rejoice in any death, and I must admit some of the jubilation I saw in the live shots in the early-morning hours Monday gave me pause. I remember well the disgust and revulsion I felt when I saw people in other countries celebrating the carnage of 9/11.

However, bin Laden was a stone-cold killer who racked up a huge body count during his far-reaching reign of terror, not some innocent person who headed off to work and never returned. He was also a coward who, despite avowals he’d go down fighting, reportedly hid behind one of his own wives, using her as a human shield, in his final moments. And, aside from some drunk students who probably aren’t even old enough to remember much about the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, I think most Americans handled the news appropriately.

I am also quite proud of the courage shown by the two dozen Navy SEALs who conducted the mission, and I think Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other military and intelligence leaders should be commended for their handling of the top-secret operation that was months in the making.

I am particularly impressed with Obama, whose bold leadership throughout the manhunt culminated with his OK to launch the risky assault — unbeknownst to the Pakistani government, which was not made aware of the raid until after it was over. John Brennan, the president’s top counterterrorism adviser, said Obama “made what I believe was one of the ... gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory.”

I also believe it was the right decision. The fact that bin Laden was living in a sprawling million-dollar mansion located about a half-mile from a Pakistani military academy — not roughing it in a remote cave or a mountainous region on the Afghan border, as had been widely believed — raises serious questions about just who knew of bin Laden’s whereabouts and supported his efforts to evade capture.

We may never know the identities of all of those who protected him, but DNA testing conducted by the U.S. government does definitively prove the al-Qaida leader is dead — though I do hope the administration decides to release photos of bin Laden’s body, despite their gruesome nature, to put to rest any conspiracy theorists’ claims of mistaken identity or an elaborate hoax.

However, regardless of whether the photographic evidence is released or not, the finality of bin Laden’s death should allow the nation to begin the long-overdue process of truly healing. And, if we allow it to, it could also be the motivator for all Americans to stand together as we did in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. After all, wouldn’t knowing his death brought about a united front be just the thing to make bin Laden roll in his watery grave?

Amy Gehrt may be reached at agehrt@pekin?