In "The Looming Tower," the Pulitzer Prize-winning history of al-Qaeda and the road to Sept. 11, author Lawrence Wright lays out how Osama bin Laden's motivation for the attacks that he planned in the 1990s, and then the Sept. 11 attacks, was to draw the United States and the West into a prolonged war--an actual war in Afghanistan, and a broader global war with Islam.
Osama got both. And we gave him a prolonged war in Iraq to boot. By the end of President Barack Obama's first term, we'll probably top 6,000 dead U.S. troops in those two wars, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans. The cost for both wars is also now well over $1 trillion.
We have also fundamentally altered who we are. A partial, off-the-top-of-my-head list of how we've changed since Sept. 11 follows.
• We've sent terrorist suspects to "black sites," detained them without trial and tortured them.
• We've turned terrorist suspects over to other regimes, knowing those countries would torture them.
• In those cases when our government later learned it got the wrong guy, federal officials not only refused to apologize or compensate him, they went to court to argue he should be barred from using our courts to seek justice, and that the details of his abduction, torture and detainment should be kept secret.
• We've abducted and imprisoned dozens, perhaps hundreds, of men in Guantanamo who turned out to be innocent. Again, the government felt no obligation to do right by them.
• The government launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign implying that people who smoke marijuana are implicit in the murder of nearly 3,000 of their fellow citizens.
• The government illegally spied and eavesdropped on thousands of American citizens.
• Presidents from both of the two major political parties have claimed the power to detain suspected terrorists and hold them indefinitely without trial, based solely on the president's designation of them as an "enemy combatant," essentially making him prosecutor, judge and jury. (I'd also argue that the treatment of someone like Bradley Manning wouldn't have been tolerated before Sept. 11.)
• The current president has also claimed the power to execute U.S. citizens, off the battlefield, without a trial, and to prevent anyone from knowing about it after the fact.
• The Congress approved, the president signed, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a broadly written law making it a crime to advocate for any organization the government deems sympathetic to terrorism. This includes challenging the "terrorist" designation in the first place.
• Flying in America now means enduring a humiliating and hassling ritual that does little if anything to actually make flying any safer. Every time the government fails to catch an attempt at terrorism, it punishes the public for its failure by adding to the ritual.
• American Muslims, a heartening story of success and assimilation, are now harassed and denigrated for merely trying to build houses of worship.
• Without a warrant, the government can search and seize indefinitely the laptops and other personal electronic devices of anyone entering the country.
• The Department of Homeland Security now gives terrorism-fighting grants for local police departments across the country to purchase military equipment, such as armored personnel carriers, which is then used against U.S. citizens, mostly to serve drug warrants.
I'm relieved that bin Laden is dead. And the Navy SEALs who carried out the harrowing raid that ended his life have my respect and admiration. For all the massive waste and abuse our government has perpetrated in the name of fighting terrorism over the last decade, there's something satisfying in knowing that he was killed in a limited, targeted operation based on specific intelligence.
But because of the actions of one guy, we allowed all the bullet points above to happen. That we managed to kill him a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks is symbolically important, but hardly seems worth the celebrations we saw across the country. There was something unsettling about watching giddy crowds bounce around beach balls and climb telephone polls, as if they were in the lawn seats at a rock festival. Solemn and somber appreciation that an evil man is gone seemed like the more appropriate reaction.
Yes, bin Laden the man is dead. But he achieved all he set out to achieve, and a hell of a lot more. He forever changed who we are as a country and for the worst--mostly because we let him. That isn't something a special ops team can fix.