Smith: What the Death of Bin Laden Means for New York

By
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Pedro Beato was 14 years old on the morning of September 11, 2001. He climbed to the roof of his Brooklyn high school and watched smoke pouring from the World Trade Center. Now Beato is a relief pitcher for the Mets, and last night he was warming up in the visitors bullpen in Philadelphia when the "USA" chants started in the stands. "Someone told me they had killed bin Laden," Beato said after the game. "I said finally now maybe the war will be over."

If only cause and effect were as direct in war as they are in baseball, and the wins and losses as definitive. Make no mistake: The killing of Osama bin Laden by American soldiers in Pakistan is an enormous victory for the United States. One fewer evil mass murderer bent on destroying us the better. But the ramifications of bin Laden's death are profound and complicated.

Starting with the emotional reactions. The thousands who lost a loved one in the terrorist attacks are roiled most deeply, of course. Yet even the rest of us, especially in New York, are experiencing a surprisingly strong wave of reactions, from the viscerally celebratory outpourings in Times Square and at Ground Zero to the quieter, queasier attempts to process a decade of pain. The city, having taken the worst losses on 9/11, is more entitled than the rest of the country to an immediate vengeful cheer at the news from Pakistan.

After that, it's hard to know what the city should feel. The city's original suffering was used to stoke simpleminded jingoism and a misguided invasion of Iraq. Bin Laden's death starts the cycle again: Today's genuine sense of patriotism, satisfaction, and relief will be followed quickly by New York's real separation — its ambivalence. Cheering feels good, but we know it's not enough and that we have a responsibility to do more than wave the flag.

That bin Laden was caught and killed so close to the ten-year anniversary of the attacks will add a very different tone to the events this September. The commemoration will still be overwhelmingly solemn, but last night's triumphant announcement by President Obama renews hope that success really is possible. Compounding the mixed reaction, though, is the knowledge that Afghanistan remains a deadly morass, and that the city is not likely to be measurably safer thanks to the elimination of our most hated enemy. Bin Laden's death makes him a more potent symbol and martyr to the twisted cause of radical Islam. In the short term, that will mean more terror alerts and more attempts to hit American targets. The larger risk is to our diligence. In practical terms, that means New York's senior politicians, like Chuck Schumer and Pete King, will have a tougher time making the case for necessary anti-terrorism funding. The more abstract, and equally important, challenge is balancing the city's fundamental openness with its security.

The Mets, by the way, beat the Phillies last night, with Beato pitching a crucial three innings. It was a good win, even if the team is still in last place. But people who want emotional clarity become Yankee fans.