WASHINGTON -- After years spent wondering daily about where he was, and what he was doing and what he was thinking, we are being overwhelmed by information about Osama bin Laden.
From 9/11 and 2001 onward, he was presented to us as a tall, imposing, hawk-nosed figure who could blow up our world. Now it appears he was an elderly man in a knitted cap, grandpa's coverlet around his shoulder, trying to find the best picture of himself on television and eating watermelon for his kidney problems.
For years we thought we would find him in the deep caves of Afghanistan or in the sophisticated Pakistani city of Lahore. Instead, a man who supposedly knew the secrets of the Western world turns out to be more like the aging star of "Sunset Boulevard," worried about how best to dye his graying hair.
Bin Laden's mind was widely thought to have become stuck in medieval times, but his son Omar described him recently as constantly listening to the BBC. One of the Green parties in Europe also apparently missed a valuable member. In one audio statement, this master-murderer spoke soberly of new approaches to relief work "because the number of victims is great due to climate changes in modern times."
Only one thing is sure: Osama Bin Laden never stood outside the history of his region. Hasan Sabah, often called the "Old Man of the Mountain," was only one of the Middle East's twisted minds to precede bin Laden. From the crumbling castle of Alamut in northwestern Iran, Sabah, member of an offshoot faith of the Shiites in the 11th century, sent out "assassins" (the word comes from "hashshashin," which means "users of hashish") to insert themselves in the courts of the era and, at the right moment, to stab to death most of the leaders of the region.
Once when I was in Persia before the Khomeini period, acting upon a literary and historical quest, I traveled to Alamut and climbed the crumbling ruins. I perched at the top for a time trying to figure out what it was that inspired Hasan Sabah. All I can calculate is that it must have been similar to whatever inspired that other deviant mind, bin Laden's, in trying to wipe out Americans everywhere in the world.
It has been 10 years since this strange man took from us not only the lives of our fellow citizens on 9/11, but also our security in our transportation hubs, our confidence in ourselves and our financial sobriety. It was this creature who bred children like rabbits, yet could kill others' children without the flick of an eye, and who at his death was planning still more abominations.
So it is important now to see his well-deserved death as posing questions for us on how to deal with threats like his in the future. These questions -- military, intelligence and psychological -- already have arisen, but they are far from answered.
After 9/11, the choice of George W. Bush's administration was to deal with bin Laden and al-Qaida by invading both Iraq and Afghanistan. This choice of two wars at the same time will go down in American history as a terrible mistake, for our enemies could far better have been dealt with through a combination of international intelligence and of the true counterinsurgency that we finally used. But President Bush and his war supporters were actually opting for all-out changes in the nations of the region.
Now bin Laden has been killed by that successful combination of intricate intelligence work and Navy SEALs helicoptering secretly into bin Laden's grubby "mansion." At the same time, the two traditional wars plod onward, and we must ask which choice was the best one. The answer seems obvious; yet, we know from past decisions made by American leaders that the obvious road is not always the road chosen.
We will have more Hasan Sabahs and Osama bin Ladens in the future. How will we deal with them? Are we capable of developing and putting into effect other operations as sophisticated and effective as this one? Or will we insist upon sending 100,000 young American men and women to fight every time some maniac becomes empowered by a crazy dream?
Let us pray that the lessons from these Navy SEALs will provide the pathway to the future.