US & Canada

Bin Laden: How he haunted the US psyche

White House celebrations

The death of Osama Bin Laden prompted jubilation across the US. The emotion was a reflection that not only was he the man behind the 9/11 attacks but also a shadowy figure who for 10 years had haunted the national psyche.

His face became one of the most recognisable in the world.

For billions of people, Osama Bin Laden was more familiar than their next-door neighbour, British sociologist Anthony Giddens once wrote.

By authorising the attacks on New York and Washington 10 years ago, which killed about 3,000 people, Bin Laden instantly became the world's most wanted man, and one of its most reviled.

But it was his continued elusiveness despite the best efforts of the US, and the sinister videos he released from hiding, that also fuelled his infamy.

With the men who hijacked the four planes dead, the attacks became identified with the man who masterminded them and who taped himself glorying in the death toll.

As more attacks struck Bali, Madrid and London, there was a widespread fear, around the globe, that Bin Laden could strike anywhere, despite little evidence that he was behind those atrocities.

But news of his death chimed most strongly in the US, the superpower which he had so shaken. There was a sense of vengeance and relief among the cheering crowds that gathered spontaneously, late at night, not just in New York and Washington DC but also in Miami, Kentucky, Illinois, Kansas, Texas and right across the US.

"For Americans, he became the embodiment of the bogeyman for us, that mythical beast that's a source of fear," says Hussein Rashid, a Muslim academic from New York who helps to build relations across communities and faiths.

"His death is incredibly cathartic and here in New York, there's a massive sense of relief, a sense of 'We've got the monster.' And that's the mode most Americans will be in for a while.

"It's incredibly important that we got him, but operationally it is less significant. He hasn't been the man in charge [of al-Qaeda] and this isn't the head of the snake."

Bin Laden's videos fanned the flames of fear by using language and symbols that alienated Americans, says Mr Rashid, such as once comparing President George W Bush to Hulagu Khan, a Mongol leader who conquered an Islamic empire.

"It was language they didn't have access to. I had to explain to people why he [Khan] was so important to Muslims and that made it more powerful."

Many of those who took to the streets on Sunday night in celebration were young people, and students at Georgetown University in Washington DC described why the news of Bin Laden's death was so significant for them.

One of them, freshman Rashawn Davis, says: "I feel more calm in the world, knowing that this man has gone."

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Media captionThe BBC's Franz Strasser talks to students about what Bin Laden's death means to them

Bin Laden's death has much more meaning for that generation, says Adam Gopnik, who writes for the New Yorker magazine.

"My 16-year-old son called me last night in great excitement because this has been the shadow he's grown up with, this frightening spectre of 9/11."

But it would be wrong to consider Bin Laden as simply a bogeyman, Gopnik says. He was a real person who ordered the deaths of thousands of people. But he had a magnetic fanaticism that elevated him above the level of gangster-dictators like Saddam Hussein.

"This kind of charismatic figure is more unusual, so it's loaded for people with more significance. Evil governed by greed and a lust for power is something that we see all the time, but when it is governed by ideology and fanatical religion, it has more power."

Renewed confidence

The duration of the hunt and the number of people saying Bin Laden was already dead added to this mythical resonance, says Gopnik.

"What we're trying to figure out is why the response [to his death] has been so visceral and all these reasons contribute, but the key reason is that he was an evil guy that did a very evil thing that badly, badly traumatised this country and he's enormously significant, both real and symbolic."

What the past 10 years have shown is that this man was not as dangerous as we feared, says Gopnik.

"His capacity to really damage this country was extremely limited and I hope this will exorcise the spectre of fear which was his greatest ally, much more than his capacity to harm."

The chants of "U! S! A!" heard in Lafayette Square outside the White House suggest Bin Laden's demise has sparked a renewed sense of patriotism.

Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a foreign affairs think-tank in London, says that although it won't ease the American sense of economic decline, Bin Laden's death will re-invigorate some sense of national pride, and it comes at just the right time.

"If the 10th anniversary of 9/11 [this September] had come and gone and Bin Laden was still out there, it would have stuck in the craw of most Americans, quite naturally.

"This reasserts a sense of American national power but in a way that's less to do with its international position and more about them sleeping better at night.

"They will feel more vindicated and happy about getting the guy who planned it."

This will provide Americans with the kind of satisfying victory denied to them in Afghanistan, he says.

In the manner of the Wild West, he adds, they went out, gathered their men and hunted their enemy down.

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