Cover Story
Associated Press/Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta

May Day Mayday

The death of Osama bin Laden marks the important end of one jihadist era. But how ready is the United States for the next?

Issue: "After Osama," May 21, 2011

Sue Mladenik had just gotten ready for bed and flipped on her tele­vision when a news crawl across the bottom of her screen told her Osama bin Laden was dead. "I was numb, shocked, and confused," the mother of six told me. Mladenik's husband Jeff died aboard American Airlines Flight 11 when hijackers trained by bin Laden flew the plane into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Mladenik said she quit watching most television after 9/11, but a weekend that included her 13-year-old Grace's spring musical, and recitals for two younger daughters, left her too exhausted for anything else.

When the terrorists killed Jeff Mladenik, he and his wife had adopted Grace from China and had paperwork underway for another Chinese daughter, Hannah. Jeff was a Wheaton College graduate who headed a web development company and also served as pastor of workplace ministry at Christ Church, a large evangelical congregation in Oak Brook, Ill.

After 9/11 the widowed Mladenik went ahead with the second adoption and then a third, Bethany. With three grown children as well, a daughter and two sons, her life is full, she said, but there's plenty of room to feel the family's loss: "Unexpected news brings it all up again."

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Mladenik, now 53, has thought about bin Laden often over the years-"and probably I've wished him dead a million times"-but news of his actual death early this month left her sobbing yet unable to explain her emotions. "Am I happy he is dead? I am happy he will never do again to others what he did to my family," she said, pausing. "Still, there is nobody who will walk my girls down the aisle."

The 24 members of SEAL Team Six who fought their way into the fortified compound holding the founder of al-Qaeda had-to some degree, like most Americans-long planned, even dreamed, of this day. Bin Laden had been a fixture on the FBI's Most Wanted list since 1998 with a reward set at $50 million since 2007, his bearded visage common to almost everyone everywhere.

After the attacks in 2001 President George W. Bush declared, "The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden. It is our No. 1 priority and we will not rest until we find him." Seven years later candidate Barack Obama said bluntly, "We will kill bin Laden."

But as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on and increasingly focused on other players like Saddam Hussein or the Taliban, bin Laden often seemed more myth than man. Rumors ran that he was dead after a December 2001 U.S. assault on Tora Bora, his Afghan mountain hideout. Later rumors said he escaped on a mule, or that he suffered from kidney failure and required-also not true-dialysis. Years passed and public interest waned. Did it matter that bin Laden was in remotest Pakistan or Afghanistan or Iran, that he was dead or alive?

It turned out that he was holed up with family members in a three-story house surrounded by 12-foot concrete walls and barbed wire just 31 miles northeast of Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. "I was surprised he was hiding in plain sight. We always thought he was somewhere up in the Tribal Areas [of Pakistan]," former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told ABCNews.

News that bin Laden had been killed began spreading on Sunday evening, May 1. At a Mets-Phillies game in Philadelphia, chants of "USA, USA" erupted spontaneously from the stands as fans began flashing headlines from their cellphones. Shortly before midnight President Obama announced, "The United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden." For Obama, who phoned former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before his speech, the success of the 40-minute raid on the compound in Abbottabad, a high-elevation tourist town dominated by one of Pakistan's largest military academies, culminated months of secretive planning for a high-risk operation.

Soon after, over a thousand mostly young people converged at the White House wrapped in flags, beating drums, blowing vuvuzelas, and carrying hastily scribbled signs like "Osama bin Gotten." Some soldiers joined the crowd: Celebrants shook their hands. A few climbed trees around the White House, sang the national anthem, and started cheers that lasted into the morning.

Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., just back from Congress' two-week recess, drove to the White House from Reagan National airport when he heard the news. The next morning, he wrote an essay about the experience: "My father's generation experienced V-E Day with the wild, celebrating mob in New York. But my generation drifted quietly into town from Vietnam. Our nation was embarrassed by the war and its soldiers. Tonight, though, our nation was filled with renewed pride. The celebration was the appropriate response of a grateful nation to so many who have given so much."


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