DING DONG! THE WITCH IS DEAD: I wasn’t much in the mood for celebrating when I heard that elite U.S. military forces had successfully stormed Osama bin Laden’s fortified mini-mansion in Pakistan’s version of Santa Barbara this Sunday, popping a richly deserved cap in that man’s turban. I was hanging out at the Cottage Hospital ER at the time, grinding my jaw and gnashing my gums. The news, delivered by CNN’s über-android Wolf Blitzer, only made the grinding worse. It’s not like I’m trying to forget 9/11 and everything that’s followed. It’s just that I’d rather not have to remember. Bitterness and rage, I’ve discovered, aren’t good for my skin tone.
Unlike the throngs assembling outside the White House that night, I felt no jubilatory impulse to wave a flag or pump my fist. I felt no sense of closure. Relief was not in the picture. Normally, I like to consider myself a sane, rational person. But all the lies told by George W. Bush over all the years have shaken such illusions. Now I’m ready to doubt even my own eyes. Who were those people cheering in front of the White House? Were they part of an event manufactured for media consumption? Was this the American equivalent of the conjured crowd scenes we all saw on TV of happy Iraqis “spontaneously” assembling to topple the statue of Saddam Hussein? I’ve never considered the conspiracy-nut demographic part of my crowd. Now, it seemed, I was part of theirs.
Upon hearing the news, my first reaction was “What took so long?” followed by “Why bother?” Given the trajectory of world events — the splintering of the jihadist movement and the advent of the “Arab Spring” — hadn’t Bin Laden faded safely into global irrelevance? Not hardly. Anyone who could launch so lethal an attack on the most technologically fortified superpower on the planet with a crew of religiously inspired malcontents armed only with box cutters — coupled with divine hatred — is no one to be dismissed. Bin Laden’s followers won’t go away. But maybe with his death they’ll be easier to catch. We’ll see.
Which begs the obvious question, the one I stopped asking for my own health. Why didn’t they see him coming in the first place? The Clinton White House had declared him Global Enemy Number One. The egregious incompetence and dereliction of duty displayed by the Bush administration where Al Qaeda is concerned — before 9/11 — beggars comprehension. There was no shortage of dots to connect and no dearth of U.S. law enforcement personnel trying to connect them. Their warnings went unheeded. I can’t bring myself to believe that Bush and his administration intentionally looked the other way. But they may as well have.
In the smoke of 9/11, it made complete sense that Bush would launch an invasion of Afghanistan. That’s where Bin Laden was headquartered. But when we had Bin Laden within our grasp at Tora Bora, we somehow let him get away. In hindsight, it’s hard not to wonder. Given the Bush administration’s grand global strategy of exploiting 9/11 to flex as the world’s dominant uni-power — capable of launching a unilateral preemptive strike anywhere it deemed fit — maybe having Bin Laden on the loose was a lot better than having him behind bars or six feet under. Certainly, had Bin Laden been caught in a timely manner, it would have been much harder to sell the American people on the subsequent invasion of Iraq.
Even though there was absolutely no connection between Bin Laden’s attack and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration managed to plant the impression that there was in the public mind. Polls taken during the buildup to war show an alarming number of Americans held Hussein responsible for the attack. If that wasn’t enough, there were knowingly doctored reports that Hussein was trying to build nuclear bombs. When American intelligence officials like former ambassador Joe Wilson — who had been dispatched to investigate the veracity of such allegations —
publicly contradicted the party line, the White House retaliated by exposing his wife as the undercover CIA agent she was. Then there were the Weapons of Mass Destruction that didn’t exist. It’s one thing to shade the truth; all elected officials do that. But the widespread campaign of deception waged to stampede the United States into what was clearly the wrong war at the wrong time with the wrong enemy remains unsurpassed by any president in American history, and that’s saying a lot.
Once the war was on, the lies continued. Some were lies of aggressive omission, like the flag-draped coffins of dead soldiers the media was not allowed to photograph. Or the entirely fabricated heroic rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch from a Baghdad hospital. Or the campaign of deceit involving the death of football star Pat Tillman, who left the NFL to join Special Forces. The administration apparently needed a heroic square-jawed martyr more than we needed straight talk. Tillman, we were told, had been killed by enemy fire. In fact, he was accidentally shot down by one of his fellow soldiers.
Bin Laden and his coconspirators killed 3,000 people on 9/11. The latest figures on the Iraq War, however accurate they may or may not be, show that the United States suffered 4,432 losses in that engagement, but that all the invading forces combined lost 24,111. Assuming that we don’t really care how many Iraqi troops were killed — roughly 70,000 — what about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who were killed? And that ignores the untold number of injured veterans — on all sides — who will be among the walking wounded the rest of their days.
Bin Laden’s plan was to bring America to its knees. I’m not saying he won. But he came close. Of the United States’ $14 trillion in debt, roughly $8 trillion was incurred responding to 9/11. That’s the cost of two wars launched by George W. Bush, which he insisted on financing off the books and outside the normal budgetary process. That debt, in case you missed it, is one of the key reasons why Republicans are now threatening to make older Americans pay much more for their Medicare.
Were it not for Bin Laden, there would be no PATRIOT Act, which gives the government carte blanche to check out what books, among other things, American citizens check out from their public libraries; there would be no Department of Homeland Security; there would be no warrantless wiretaps on American citizens; there’d be no glorified rent-a-cops demanding to X-ray your junk as you board your plane, and your preflight waits would not exceed the length of the flight itself. Without Bin Laden — and without the Bush administration — the United States would not have gone so clearly to the dark side where torture was concerned. The Bush administration gave us the wonderfully grim euphemism — “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Under new legal theories propounded by the government, torture was not permitted per se, just redefined. Under the new line in the sand, interrogators could do anything just as long it wasn’t likely to cause “organ failure.” Some people lose their innocence; others just throw theirs away. Amazingly, the intellectual ghouls from the Bush administration are trying to take credit for Bin Laden’s assassination, arguing that were it not for these enhanced measures, Bin Laden would never have been tracked to his lair. Actually, it’s not so amazing at all. Nor is it remotely true.
The good news, of course, is that with Bin Laden dead, the emotional urgency for waging war in Afghanistan is significantly diminished and we can begin the process of withdrawing our troops in earnest. If anyone deserved a shot to the head, Bin Laden did. But I take no joy in his execution. There is no relief, no closure. Like I say, I don’t want to forget. But I don’t want to remember either.