By Leonard Pitts Jr.

May 3, 2011

Dear Sam:

This will be the last letter I write you. I don't think they have newspapers where you are.

I first wrote you nine years ago on that cloudless blue Tuesday morning when 19 men under your command hijacked four airbuses. They crashed two into the towers of the World Trade Center, one into the side of the Pentagon, and the last into a field near Shanksville, Pa. Nearly 3,000 people died that day, and I remember being numb with the weight of it all.

I didn't even know your name at the time, so I addressed myself to a monster, a beast, a b-----d -- which, as it turns out, was an accurate salutation. You had bloodied us, I said, as we had seldom been bloodied before.

But I warned you that you had not defeated us -- and I promised you retribution. "When roused," I wrote, "we are righteous in our outrage, terrible in our force. When provoked by this level of barbarism, we will bear any suffering, pay any cost, go to any length, in the pursuit of justice."

There have been times over the years when I wondered if I overstated American resolve, times you seemed to have slipped off the radar, to have become less a priority for the nation. Then came Sunday night's news that you had been killed during a raid by U.S. forces upon a safe house in Pakistan, and I knew I never should have doubted.

Sam, I'm not one to gloat over someone's death. My preference would have been to see you captured alive to face the righteous judgment of the nation you hated so profoundly. But if somebody's got to get shot in the head, well ... it could not happen to a more deserving guy.

I think of you often, Sam. I think of you when I throw away bottled water and shuffle through airport security in stocking feet. I think of you when I see metal security barriers rise out of the street in Washington, D.C., or concrete planters barricading federal buildings. I think of you when some lawmaker suggests we bomb Mecca or some state feels compelled to legislate against sharia law. I think of you when I see what my country has become.

You made us something we were not on Sept. 10th. You made us afraid. You tapped that rich seam of paranoia and intolerance that has always lurked in the American psyche. You changed us for the worse.

But you did not topple us. You did not drive us out of the Middle East. You failed.

And yes, I know your followers will take up your cause with renewed vigor. They will fail, too.

Because, though your cause wrapped itself in righteous anger, there is nothing righteous about your chosen tool of expression: the indiscriminate murder of women, men, children, Muslims. Christians, Jews, Americans.

That tool must always fail, because the world cannot negotiate with a gun to its head. Civilized people are required to understand this, or else not have a world worth living in.

Your ignominious fate -- shot to death, your body dumped into the sea -- was predictable, then, from the moment the first plane struck the first tower. I salute the military and intelligence personnel whose skill and courage made the predictable into the reality.

And I offer four words of epitaph to follow your body down as it falls through a murky abyss, henceforth to be seen only by the fish:

I told you so.


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Dining With al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East

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