Pundits and officialdom have been quick to say that killing bin Laden does not mean the war is over; that we are still at risk; that the battle continues:
In brief comments on Monday, Clinton said bin Laden's death was a milestone in the war on terrorism, but stressed that the "battle to stop al-Qaida and its syndicate of terror" is not over.
I'm not sure with whom they're arguing; no one seriously imagines this will be the end of the problem--although I'll go out on a punditry limb and say it may be the beginning of the end. Or is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
But when, then, do we know it's over? We never defined the war, after all. It was supposedly a war "on terror." No one ever accepted that as a coherent formulation. We all know it's a war on al Qaeda, and maybe a war on expansionary political Islam, and some--definitely not me, as you know--believe it's a war on Islam itself. We are at war in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya; we're sure not at peace with Pakistan, and we are clearly operating in Yemen.
The most obvious and essential war aim has been achieved. Osama bin Laden is dead. We were all certain of that goal, at least.
I think it's safe to say the war is not over until every active member of al Qaeda is dead, in custody, or otherwise pacified. But it's hard to prove a negative: How do we know there is no al Qaeda left? How do we know when the ideology itself has lost power to compel?
The Second World War ended when the Japanese surrendered. The Cold War ended when the Berlin Wall fell. Socialism, alas, did not die, but clearly that was the end of the war with the Soviet Union.
Is it "the end" when all of the troops come home? When we decide the threat is so remote that granny needn't take off her shoes when she goes through airport security? Is it the end when political Islam is spent and exhausted and discredited? How will we know?
If it's truly a war on "terror," are we obliged to keep fighting until the PKK and the ETA lay down their arms?
When do we get to say, "America's secure and at peace" again?