Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, and How Government Always Wins The War on Terror

How can the U.S. stop fighting when the threat is so dire, but we've almost won?


It's been one year since that strange evening in May 2011 when President Barack Obama reported that Al-Qaeda head Osama Bin Laden, so long mysteriously absent from the world stage, had been found and killed by U.S. forces. One year later and the U.S. government still refuses to release photos or video to prove Bin Laden really died in the way described, but the latest Time has the action-packed pages that relate just how the raid went down (for real this time!). No photos because the risk is too great that pictures of Bin Laden's body would incite violence. Even though Al-Qaeda is, according to senior U.S. officials, "essentially gone" and with lesser affiliates capable of doing only minor harm to U.S. interests.

Except that, according to recently-released documents found with Bin Laden in his Pakistan hideaway, Al-Qaeda was trying to make a come-back and had considered such bold schemes as assassinating President Barack Obama. So, which one is it? Have we won yet, or is the risk from terrorism still dire enough to justify more drone strikes in more countries, as well as the potential for the indefinite detainment of Americans?

It's been nearly 11 years since September 11 and the man responsible for the death of 3,000 Americans is gone at last, but we are still not safe enough. This vaguely-defined effort continues to be a perfect example of government power which exists only to sustain itself. There's always a threat which demands government action, be it drugs or financial collapse or the potential for 10 percent unemployment. The cost of not intervening is always presumed to be worse. How can you disprove it? And what's more serious than the safety of Americans?

This means that whatever the price of American empire, it must be worth it. You say the odds of an American dying in a terrorist attack are one in 80,000? Well, if the government weren't fighting them abroad, things would be worse at home. How many terrorist attacks might there have been if not for this fight against them? (Never mind how many there would be in a world without blow-back or intrusion into foreign affairs. Nor the FBI's recent, troubling habit of encouraging pathetic plots so much that it's hard to know if many of their touted anti-terrorists success would have gotten as far as they did without law enforcement encouragement.) 

A year after the reason for the invasion of Afghanistan was killed (in Pakistan), it's fair to ask: What has ten years, half a trillion dollars, 11,000 dead Afghan citizens and 1800 dead American troops given Americans? Hard to say yet, since there are still "long-term and acute challenges" for Allied forces which may stretch past the projected exit date of 2014. But it's better than before, right? Obama spoke in Kabul on Wednesday on how "the dark cloud of war" will soon be gone and that "there's a light on the horizon because of the sacrifices" the American troops have made. (Iraq's war is officially over, even if violence, a $750 million embassy of 16,000 personnel, and occasional drone patrols remain.) 

Perhaps that's progress. And after all, drone strikes are less terrible than an all-out war. But it may just be harder to stop a constant level of intrusion overseas than to stop a more traditional war. Most people now regret at least the war in Iraq. But unless economic doom finally forces American troops to go home, what are the chances that they'll really leave Afghanistan or Iraq (or Yemen, or Pakistan?) About as good as the chances that they will finally leave Japan or Germany or South Korea. 

And what of all those pinpricks into the legs of American life and liberty? The United States now maintains a $50 billion a year Department of Homeland Security. The National Security Agency conducts a program of spying on American citizens in the United States whose scale is still unknown. The Transportation Security Agency subjects Americans to the regular humiliations of full-body scanners and intrusive pat-downs. The U.S. government now claims the right to detain indefinitely or assassinate Americans who are found to have (loosely defined) ties with terrorism. These items are all part of the cost we pay, along with the illegal war in Libya as well as drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, which have killed more than 1400 people since 2009. But at least they're officially real now, those drone strikes.

The Osama-assassination victory-lap from the Obama administration closely coincides with the U.S. government's claiming the right to use "surgical strikes" against targets in Yemen and Pakistan whose names the government doesn't even know. And the U.S. still needs the ability to detain and kill American citizens who get tangled up in terror. 

Maybe it's just one more push and terrorists and dictators might really be gone. But if so, why did the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) base its claim for indefinite detainment on an official declaration that the battlefield can be "the homeland" at last? And though Obama swore he wouldn't abuse or use it, even his most doe-eyed fans should be worried when someone less lovable gets into office, still possessing such powers.

Allowing for indefinite detainment is such a George Bush-era signal that the war can never really be over. Why, after so many years, does the U.S. government refuse to pinpoint what an end to the war on terror might resemble, besides an end to that term? Because there's no reason to find an ending for such a marvelous excuse for state power.  

Lucy Steigerwald is an associate editor at Reason.