The killing of Osama bin Laden is a moment not for triumphal chest-thumping but for sober reflection. In the decade since September 11, 2001, what has the United States done in response to those horrific attacks? What did it cost us? And where do we go from here?
Out of the despair and wreckage of that day, two notions of the enemy came to dominate the American conscience. One was the terrorist mastermind behind the attack, Osama bin Laden, a figure whose infamy grew in proportion to his elusiveness. His face was seen only in mysterious, sporadic videos; his taunting words heard only in audiotapes of unverifiable authenticity; until May 1, he reportedly “lived in a cave somewhere.” But no matter how seemingly spectral bin Laden became, there was still a person somewhere who could be brought to justice, resources he controlled that could be seized, weapons that could be neutralized, a legion of followers who could be pursued and apprehended—in short, a material network of terrorism that could be disabled and held accountable.
But rather than dedicate itself wholly to these tasks, the Bush administration chose to create another monster, one even more shadowy than bin Laden and, because of this purposeful vagueness, one far more useful and ultimately more dangerous—terror itself. As the hunt for bin Laden was botched, dismissed as “irrelevant” and then largely forgotten, the country went to war against this limitless enemy.
At first we attacked those who had harbored bin Laden, the Taliban in Afghanistan, in a mission that was ill defined but at least bore some contestable relation to September 11. Then we went to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, a regime that had no involvement in 9/11 and no relation to bin Laden or Al Qaeda. In the name of fighting this open-ended “war on terror,” more than 50,000 US and coalition troops have been killed or wounded, and hundreds of thousands of Afghan, Iraqi and Pakistani civilians have been slain. America spent $3 trillion, and counting, pursuing it. We’ve spied on citizens without warrants and engaged in torture, extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention, racial profiling, unmanned drone strikes against civilians, assassinations and other dark arts. Fundamental legal concepts like the writ of habeas corpus and the check on executive power were profoundly eroded. The “war on terror” grew into a global cause as other countries used it to justify clampdowns on dissent.
In one sense, then, bin Laden succeeded all too well. The purpose of terrorism is to provoke a disproportionate, counterproductive and irrational response that makes a nation less secure and less free. America chose to become that place.