Bin Laden is gone, but the threat of terrorist attacks remains, as do the policy responses following the 9/11 attacks. The surrender of our liberties for security continues. Guantanamo remains open. US troops are still fighting wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan, as well as Libya and Pakistan. While some leaders are calling for an exit from Afghanistan following Bin Laden’s death, I doubt this will be a major piece of the next two years of the Obama administration. While the story of how this happened continues to emerge, it should be clear that the process of manual intelligence gathering, following leads, interviewing captured terrorists, and making a targeted incursion (versus, say, starting a war against Pakistan) were what lead to his apprehension and death. Hopefully the lessons of this man-hunt carry forward with US decision makers whenever pursuing the next individual who sought to destroy our country.
Eduardo Galeano wrote this vignette in his 1998 book, Upside Down:
A Star Is Born?
In mid-1998, the White House put another villain up on the global marquee. He uses the stage name Osama bin Laden; he’s an Islamic fundamentalist, sports a beard, wears a turban, and caresses the rifle in his lap. Will this new star’s career take off? Will he be a box-office hit? Will he manage to undermine the foundations of Western civilization or will he only play a supporting role? In horror movies, you never know.
Thirteen years later, it’s clear that Bin Laden’s actions, specifically, the 9/11 attack, prompted the US government to make choices which fundamentally undermined who we are as a country. The escalation of a security state, wiretapping Americans without warrant, holding Americans without charge, ignoring habeas corpus rights, using torture as a means of making people talk, at times outsourcing that torture to countries that are more comfortable with it, outsourcing key military security tasks to private corporations, creating black hole prisons around the world, and the list goes on. Bin Laden was the reason, the justification for so many of these changes to who we are as a country. In the end, he and his band of fanatics have never posed an existential threat to America. But the threat they did pose, both realized and potential, has been used as a justification for our government to take actions which fundamentally challenge the values we have held dear as a country.
The death of Bin Laden should prompt us to end the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Libya. It should prompt us to close Guantanamo Bay and bring every remaining prisoner there to trial in front of federal, civilian judges. It should cause legislation to be written giving privacy rights back to Americans, including a repeal of the FISA Reauthorization bill, which gives retroactive immunity to people and companies who illegally helped the Bush administration wiretap Americans, and the Patriot Act. The invasive security measures at airports through TSA body scanners and full-body pat downs should be dropped. In short, it’s time to make America look like we did before Bin Laden launched the 9/11 attacks and a set of changes were enacted that fundamentally challenged who we are as a country. At the same time, the diminished resources being dedicated to fight wars in the Muslim world should be redirected in part to improving our human intelligence infrastructure and the rest going to help balance our budget. If and when these things start to happen, the real meaning of the death of Bin Laden will have become clear. But if his death changes nothing about how we look at the world, then the only logical assumption in answer to Galeano’s thirteen year old question is that Bin Laden played merely a supporting role in the changes American leadership sought to make in our country. Personally, I hope that President Obama and congressional leadership of both parties step forward and seize the opportunity to take our country back from the gripping fear of Al Qaeda which has driven so many policy decisions for the last ten years. To do so would require real leadership and real courage, characteristics which I truly hope will be on display in coming days.