By Dr. Adam Garfinkle
The killing of Osama bin Laden is a significant positive inflection point in what used to be called the war on terror.
In a cultural zone where politics is highly personalised and sharply polarised by dominant religious modes of thought, leaders cum symbols mean much for recruitment and morale.
It now appears, too, that bin Laden was more active (if not particularly successful) in directing operations than had been thought, and that his obsession with targeting the US and other Western countries had not diminished through the years.
Moreover, replacing bin Laden as al-Qa'ida's head will be difficult. He had charisma that enabled him to raise money and unify an under-institutionalised organisation made up of fanatics from many countries.
The factionalism characteristic of al-Qa'ida all along could now destroy it. Indeed, the selection of Saif al-Adel, an Egyptian, as an interim leader suggests a bitter dispute within.
But does any of this really matter? After all, a good argument can be made that we have exaggerated the Islamist terror threat all along, a conclusion that the mediocre record of terrorist successes in recent years would support. And now an upsurge of political activism throughout the Arab world has all but destroyed the lingering appeal of bin Laden's message; everyone can see a better way to challenge an unacceptable status quo than to employ the nihilistic violence promoted by al-Qa'ida.
Nevertheless, the struggle with Salafi terrorism is not over. In the near term, the gradual franchising of al-Qa'ida operations bears uncertain international security implications, so we must remain vigilant, particularly to prevent any links developing between terrorists and weapons of mass destruction.
In the longer term, a second generation of violent fanatics could arise from a new, deeper and broader base of more explicitly religious politics in the Arab and Muslim worlds likely to follow from recent upheavals.
Whether there is a second wave of Salafi terrorism depends largely on the extent to which these political cultures can cope with the demands placed on them.
Their inability to adapt well to the demands of modernisation in the second half of the 20th century is the deepest source of the terrorist violence of our times, not, as more commonly believed, poverty, injustice, Western policies or a lack of democracy. A continuing failure to adapt is likely in the longer run to produce another iteration of chiliastic terrorism.
While bin Laden's death does not end our problems, a certain psychological closure has undoubtedly been afforded by it.
That psychological closure allows us to adjust several policy directions that have gone astray since 9/11 and, perhaps even more important, to gain perspective less on what others have done to us during the past 10 years and more on what we have done to ourselves.
We Americans would be wise, for example, to rethink the governmental reforms of the post-9/11 era: the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the Directorate of National Intelligence. Both introduced gratuitous layers of bureaucracy that do nothing to enhance the functions of the relevant organisations.
We also need to interrogate the pattern of failures at the CIA. The fact it took the abundantly resourced American intelligence community nearly a decade to find bin Laden is an embarrassing case in point, but only one among many.
We must also roll back the institutionalised paranoia that has beset us during the past decade.
Obviously our security procedures were too lax before 9/11, but having to take off our shoes before boarding aircraft, frisking elderly Irish nuns to prove we're not profiling, splashing messages above our highways reading "report suspicious activity", all such excesses communicate to would-be attackers how easy and economical it is to terrorise Americans.
These self-inflicted wounds do not deter attack but invite it, even as they sap the optimist can-do spirit that is one of America's greatest assets.
Above all, we should search our souls; and I use the word advisedly. Americans should be proud of the toleration we have demonstrated in the past decade; accusations of Islamophobia, though useful parochially to some, have been vastly overblown by any reasonable measure.
But by our actions as a government and as a society we have demonstrated an alarming level of historical myopia and cultural smugness.
We have failed to understand our own political culture as one deeply suffused with by now attenuated but still defining religious sensibilities that we mislabel with the secular vocabulary of Enlightenment universalism.
That is why we have not grasped how others see us and therefore so often have acted counterproductively towards them. We would be wise to take some ancient advice: Avoid rejoicing in the fall of one's enemies, even one as heinous as bin Laden, and try instead to learn from our encounter with him.
Dr. Adam Garfinkle is editor of The American Interest and a former speechwriter to secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. He will be a guest speaker at the US Studies Centre Summit on the 9/11 Decade in Sydney on June 6th & 7th.