The Economist’s Democracy in America blog links to this reflection on Osama bin Laden. While acknowledging the positive result of Bin Laden’s death – that the world is now somewhat safer – the article also reminds us of the enormous impact that his terrorism had on the United States, and judges that he was probably proud of his achievements:
By the end of 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.
But it was the extent to which the West subverted its own values as it tried to respond to Bin Laden’s threat that may have given him the greatest satisfaction. I’m just gonna pick a couple of highlights from the article:
- We’ve sent terrorist suspects to “black sites” to be detained without trial and tortured.
- We’ve turned terrorist suspects over to other regimes, knowing that they’d be tortured.
- 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 have been innocent. Again, the government felt no obligation to do right by them.
- 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 the president prosecutor, judge, and jury. (I’d also argue that the treatment of someone like Bradley Manning wouldn’t have been tolerated before September 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.
I think that whatever your overall political views, and whether or not you agree that the above measures were genuinely necessary to keep Americans and others safe, these are some pretty sad things to have happened. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Bin Laden “won,” I’m sure the political and psychological damage he caused were among his key objectives. What’s also important to remember is that most of the new and intrusive security apparatus that has been set up in western countries, including the far-reaching powers governments have arrogated to themselves, will remain in place for a long time to come, if not indefinitely. Governments tend to be reluctant to give up powers in general, and any loosening of security that could be blamed for allowing a terrorist attack to take place is surely too big a political risk for any government to take.
So, you know. Happy weekend and all that.