By Paul Greenberg

May 4, 2011

What impressed most when the news arrived late Sunday night was the cheering, yelling, flag-waving crowd that materialized almost immediately outside the White House. ("U.S.A! U.S.A!") In this country, a spontaneous demonstration can still be spontaneous. Nobody had to organize this celebration. It just burst forth. It came as naturally to Americans as breathing free, as celebrating the victory of good over evil.

Justice had finally been done. And when the news -- the long awaited news -- reached America, celebrations erupted. Everywhere. Especially in the heart.

The long arm of American justice had finally caught up with this mass murderer, who had managed to elude his just deserts for a long and arduous decade. The American eagle, talons extended and eyes ablaze, had landed on Osama bin Laden's plush doorstep. And justice would soon follow.

It had taken a decade of frustration and confusion, sacrifice and danger, to track him down -- a decade that, all too often, was a decade of disunity to boot. But this, this glorious night, was different from all other nights. All could celebrate tonight.

He who had delighted in killing the innocent was killed himself. Americans and, surely, free men everywhere could not suppress a shout of sheer, unbridled joy. There is something about justice done that thrills to the bone.

It was time to gather at the White House, in Times Square and at Ground Zero, where the Twin Towers once stood. And in that lonely field outside Shanksville, Pa., where one of the hijacked airliners went down before it could reach its target -- the White House? the Capitol?

A few paused at that quiet meadow after the news came to remember the Americans who had thwarted the hijackers' designs, and given their own lives in the effort. They were the first Americans to strike back at the terrorists, whatever it might cost them. "Let's roll!" one shouted. And they did. A whole nation did.

Just as Americans waved the flag on that first, awful September 11th, letting it stand for all the sorrow and anger and utter determination we had no words for, so once again it was time to unfurl Old Glory and let her wave, this time in celebration. The scenes in Times Square brought back those on V-J Day. We have not yet forgotten how to celebrate a triumph in a righteous cause. May we never forget.

Let this remarkably successful strike be remembered in song and story, for a nation that celebrates its heroes will have more of them. It was a beautifully executed mission -- from start to funeral (at sea). We've been waiting for this day a long time -- and so have the fishes. Who knows, this latest saga of the SEALs may yet renew interest in military history on many an American campus. Why not? ROTC is coming back even in the Ivy League.

The joyous reaction to the news was almost as satisfying as imagining what the reaction must be among our enemies -- in the pestholes around the world where terrorists and their friends gather. Let them gnash their teeth in Hamas-ruled Gaza, in Hezbollastan in the north of Lebanon, and in trembling Damascus, where a tyrant is being defied daily by his own people. And in the cells at Guantanamo. Justice may finally be done even there if those long-delayed military trials can finally get under way.

Osama bin Laden thought our days of glory were over, that this land of the free was no longer the home of brave. He thought the laws of wars didn't apply to him, or even the laws of decency. He found out different. And so did all those who assumed he would never be caught. They were mistaken. For this day saw America striding forth as of old, avenging the innocent and doing justice.

No wonder flags were waved and songs sung and congratulations exchanged. Imagine the buzz in the halls of the Pentagon or the corridors of West Point. And the quiet toasts in American intelligence headquarters around the globe -- toasts long awaited and well deserved.

Even more impressive than America's triumphing over evil in this singular case is that Americans can still recognize evil. We will not be reduced to whimpering, "Why do they hate us?" We have better things to do, like chasing down these killers to the ends of the earth. And there is no reason to be ashamed when they're caught and dispatched.

Congratulations to the armed forces of the United States (with special reference to the U.S. Navy SEALs and our Special Ops forces in general), their commander-in-chief, and all the unheralded, even unidentified, intelligence operatives who cooperated in pulling off what was a complicated military operation but a simple act of justice. It is time CIA agents were praised instead of prosecuted.

For once Americans weren't blaming each other, or dreaming up conspiracy theories about our own leaders. On this night, all were celebrating -- regardless of race, creed, color, party or any other irrelevance. Out of many, we were one again: E pluribus unum. Which is not only a motto but a battle cry.

Surely it won't be long before the usual partisans roll out their usual talking points, but on this night America rose above all that. And united we stood. May we always. For there is no better guarantor of liberty than unity.

To adapt a passage from John F. Kennedy's inaugural, let the word go forth, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to another generation of Americans committed to freedom -- and committed to each other. Anyone who lays a hand on any of us will have to answer to all of us. Once again let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. For America is still America.

Should we be in any danger of forgetting our elemental character as a free people, let the news that arrived Sunday night, and ran through the country like a joyous current, serve as a reminder. How sweet those news bulletins were, as sweet as justice no longer delayed.

Yes, American embassies around the world have been told to be on guard for attacks in retaliation for this act of justice. By all means, let us remember to stay vigilant. But let's not forget to be proud, too.

No, this is not the end of the struggle, far from it. Or as a leader in another long, long struggle for freedom and civilization, Winston Churchill, once put it: "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."


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