WASHINGTON -- Two years ago at an international conference for journalists in Helsinki, I happened to chat for a while with one of the very first journalists to interview Osama bin Laden. He was Hamid Mir, a big, handsome Pakistani who had seen the world's No. 1 terrorist in one of his many caves on the border between his country and Afghanistan -- and was not at all relaxed about the whole thing.
Although Hamid was tough enough-looking to scare a variety of normal people, he confessed in some detail to me how utterly terrified he was by the entire experience. "It was 1997," Hamid said, "and I wanted to know who had killed Pakistani soldiers doing peacekeeping in Somalia. He (bin Laden) told me that, yes, he had done this -- because they were guarding Americans. Then, in 1998, he issued his fatwa to kill all Americans.
"There was nothing likable about him. I asked him about 9/11 (in a later interview). He turned off my recorder and said, 'Yes.' Then he turned it back on and said, 'No.' So the 'Yes' was reported. I said he was a bad Muslim and he would go to hell -- like me. Why? Because he had killed so many Muslims. I was very scared. I wanted to leave. I kept asking, 'Can I leave? Can I leave?' After two hours I was able to leave. I never went back."
But now Osama bin Laden, Saudi millionaire, father of scores of children, businessman in Sudan, is dead -- and his death is a mammoth victory not only for the United States but also for President Barack Obama who, while we thought he was deep into debt and deficit thinking these last few weeks, was really working with American Special Forces to attack Osama in a "mansion" in a small city near Islamabad.
No more caves, no more mountains. Osama really never was into the Outward Bound experience. Now he's buried at sea, and there are no shrines at sea, no graves to kneel over and make vows over. The man who oversaw a vast conspiracy of minds and consciences to carry people back in history thousands of years and create an Islamic caliphate is finished, and it was the hated Americans who did it.
What happens now? First, we are just dying to hear all the details. It will be an interesting week. But bets are on that al-Qaida will never be the same again. Osama was the prophet of all that doom, and one does not see another such black spirit on the horizon. Besides -- just his luck! -- an "Arab awakening" is now sweeping the Arab world, and there is not one positive mention of Osama and not one negative mention of America.
This moment in history further shows that America is sitting on some promising developments. First, President Obama has the democracy-minded Arab Spring all across the Middle East. Then, with Osama gone, Obama could infinitely more easily do something dramatic, like withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq and finesse things with Pakistan. The American president could now say, "We've destroyed the prophet of al-Qaida, as we said we would, and now we can withdraw, as we said we would."
Suddenly, overnight, the world is different. It is a world of new possibilities, of new American possibilities in the world. Me? I'm going to enjoy it.