Osama bin Laden was killed two years ago, but he lives on in having a profound impact on our lives. It's no accident that Osama focused on the World Trade Center (twice) and seemingly only secondarily on the Pentagon and (assumably) the Capital. The Twin Towers lay at the epicenter of the money machine that fuels our and other economies. Its destruction, he was confident, would have a devastating and far-reaching effect. It did. Al Qaeda’s leader may have hung out (we thought) in rustic caves, but he clearly had a deep and sophisticated understanding of how the world functions and, most important, of the American psyche. He assuredly knew of our tendency to overreact to dramatic events, hyped by a compliant press and ginned up opportunistically by people in power. George W. Bush was in command on 9/11, a time when his leadership was in question. He badly needed and got a boost. It's hard to know what another president, including Barak Obama, might have done in the same circumstance.
Osama wanted to change the very nature of America, a society that he saw as overly powerful, self-satisfied, complacent and ungodly — perhaps mostly ungodly. His success, particularly in laying low the West's most emblematic city proved that his kind of war-waging had legs. It had legs and, because it had no locatable fixed center or national vulnerability, it was extremely difficult to combat. America, and for that matter any other nation, had experience fighting organized State armies in hot and cold wars. It had none with the kind of forces under bin Laden's command. Moreover, its two most recent wars — Korea and Viet Nam — had proved both wildly unpopular and unwinnable. Americans elected Eisenhower in 1952 on the promise of exiting Korea and Nixon sixteen years later in the hopes (unrealistic) of quickly ending Viet Nam, the most hated war in modern US history.
Bin Laden was right about overreaction. Afghanistan, Iraq and perhaps even more so the Patriot Act were all facilitated by post 9/11 hysteria. I will return to that legislation. Given his prime target, it's clear that Osama wanted to disrupt our, and probably Western, economies. An added bonus for him of course would be the possible impact on his nemesis, the Saudi monarchy, which might sustain losses and be weakened by any downturn. Whether he knew that Bush would actually invade Afghanistan — Clinton had limited retaliation to selective bombing — is unclear. It probably would be far fetched to think he expected that we would quickly turn our attention to and expend huge resources against Iraq, which had no skin in the 9/11 game. Whatever his calculation, he was right in thinking a direct hit on our financial center would have negative (direct or indirect) economic consequences. That America would devote so much treasure and sacrifice, so many lives, must have given him more pleasure than he could ever have anticipated.
On the other hand, if he was looking at Korea and most especially Viet Nam as examples of how our national will would collapse in the face of inevitable protests, he was dead wrong. Despite the unpopularity of the Iraq conflict in particular, there were no comparable challenges in Washington or on the streets of our cities. And, despite tepid support, we have stayed the course (misguided or not) in Afghanistan longer than in any other war. Our national inertia is a mystery, but maybe not completely. Looking back at the tumultuous 1960s, many Americans now regret one of the terrible unintended consequences of protest. It wasn't enough to vent our frustration on the leaders who got us into that quagmire, we ended up disrespecting the troops who followed them, this despite most of them having been drafted into service. Viet Nam Vets came home to an ungrateful nation, many of them effectually cast into a dustbin of neglect. It took a long time for the military and its top brass to get over the defeat of Viet Nam. So, too, did we endure a long national depression, compounded by guilt for our misguided poor treatment of the warriors. What bin Laden didn't know is that we had learned a bitter lesson and are unlikely to ever again diss those who stood in harms way. Quite the contrary, we admire our troops and the military is one of the few institutions that have our trust. Guilt is a powerful thing.
That brings me back to the Patriot Act, perhaps more damaging to our society and way of life than the economic or human losses that followed 9/11. In some ways the America will never be the same phenomenon begins with Osama's audacious attack. Beyond the shock that our mainland, always considered invulnerable, was successfully violated, the idea that it was done by stateless terrorists threw us off balance. It instilled in us a national unease, one that was recently reinforced by the Boston bombing carried out by individuals in broad daylight with a heavy police presence in place. We were, the government told us, in a Global War on Terrorism. Since the weapons used in destroying the Twin Towers and damaging the Pentagon were commercial aircraft, the way in which we approach air travel was immediately changed. To put is simply, travel is not what it used to be and perhaps never will be. Osama lives.
To be sure, while many of us travel by air many of us don't. On the other hand try to visit a museum in New York or Washington, be sure that you will have to go through security. If you're carrying a bag, in the case of women that means virtually everyone, expect it to be inspected. And speaking of New York, most large office buildings require ID before stepping on to an elevator. Osama lives.
But these inconveniences are minor compared to what the Patriot Act, passed in a moment of national hysteria, wrought. The Act gave the government a wide range of powers, ones that could turn the ordinary citizen into a criminal with little or no rights in an instant. And it allowed a broad array of surveillance, albeit authorized and monitored by a (secret) court. After Patriot, any idea of privacy was nothing more than a naive elusion. Osama lives.
Part of that illusion was broken wide open by the revelation that the government was monitoring each and every one of our telephone calls, even if we accept that this did not include (without specific court approval) listing to the conversations. The idea that big brother was aware that my son called me today or that I called my sister last week seemed, and is, a gross invasion of assumed privacy. It's not necessary to draw out these examples; you get the point. Nor am I telling you something you don't already know or have thought about. The broader question here, and the immediate reason for all the fuss, is whether we in fact did know or could have known that such a program was, or was likely to be, in place. Perhaps equally important is whether we wanted to know.
Apparently member of Congress in both houses were informed of this program and given access to fairly broad information about its nature and scope. Leaders and one would assume members of the Intelligence committees certainly knew what has been going on, or have no excuse for not knowing. It appears that many rank and file members had access but didn't bother to make use of it. In a sense one could say they were derelict in duty, but the truth probably is that they really didn't want to know. The Patriot Act was not merely passed by our elected officials but it was renewed. In each case, while the bills were certainly pushed by conservatives, all members knowing the national mood and fears, had to think hard about their individual votes. Let's be honest, our opinions and any lack of real protest, made them do it. We too are culpable. Osama lives.
We need to be honest in admitting that fighting an asymmetric "war" with stateless and often individual adversaries requires navigating in still somewhat uncharted or at least uncomfortable waters. When you are unsure, it's not unexpected to throw out a wide net, a net that is likely to ensnare as many or more innocents than guilty. It's a fact that we Americans have a very low tolerance for the kind of thing that happened in Boston. As a one-off, we may show some resilience, but not if it were to happen more frequently. Remember bombings of this kind are the every day in the Near East, something that surely none of us would want here. So what is being done under the Patriot Act reflects what perhaps most of us want. No violence, regardless of the cost. That desire of course conflicts with what we have always seen as our national character. And it is our national character that is currently being threatened — we seemingly have lost our bearings. Osama lives.
America is not the same since 9/11 and the Snowden leaks are not so much a revelation of what we already knew or should have assumed, as they are a wakeup call. Our character is changing and we have had no serious discussion about what that means, how far we want to go and what price we are willing to pay. The digital age has facilitated actions that security people could only have dreamed of in years past. We embrace what it has done for us, but often without much thought. It's all happening so fast, and we have yet to adjust, to know that along with everything else our age of innocence is long gone. Special forces killed Osama bin Laden, only we can prevent him from living on. It's time we took on that task.