Osama bin Laden is dead. The desire to "capture or kill" this man provided the pretext for two wars and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Afghans and U.S. soldiers. The institutions and infrastructure of a modern developed state were all but destroyed in one country. In the other, a vile, murderous and misogynist regime was replaced with a vile, corrupt, and less overtly, but equally misogynist regime.
Under this pretext, over two million Iraqis became refugees, half inside their own country. Entire Iraqi cities endured a bloody process of forced segregation along the economic and theological lines separating Shi'a and Sunni Muslims. The other half languish in Jordan and Syria, surviving through manual labor when they are lucky (while often displacing the Egyptian migrants who traditionally did this work), and prostitution when they are not so lucky.
Under this pretext, Americans became inured to the "targeted killing" – political assassination – of identified enemies – along with any unfortunates who happened to be in the way of, or merely mistaken for, a "target." A generation of drone operators sitting in Las Vegas has learned to treat real murder as just another video game. As Jeffrey Toobin observes, even this latest triumph, the death of Osama bin Laden, is of questionable legality. "It’s worth noting," he says, "that the apparently universal acclaim for the killing represents a major shift in American perceptions of such actions. Following the revelations of C.I.A. assassination plots by the Church Committee, in the nineteen-seventies, President Ford issued Executive Order 11905 (later 12333), which stated,
We have all but abandoned national and international institutions of justice that have served this nation imperfectly but well, from Washington to Nuremburg.
Under this pretext, the highest officials of the United States openly boasted about the use of torture. This country had long practiced covert support and training for programs of institutionalized torture in other states, from Greece to Brazil and Chile. But for the first time in a century, the United States overtly embraced torture as legitimate response to fear. Citizens of this country were taught to approve of any atrocity, if our leaders assured us it was necessary for our protection. We will be living with this distortion of our national character for a long time.
We can expect to hear in the coming weeks that torture produced the key piece of the puzzle, the courier who traveled to and from Abbottabad. The New Yorker's Steve Coll reports that it was traditional analysis of mountains of data that led to the discovery of bin Laden's location. However, says Coll, "the breakthrough started several years back from detainee interrogations; it’s not clear yet how or by what means the information about the courier who led to the Abbottabad compound was extracted." So we may yet hear Dick Cheney say, "See? Torture works."
Under this pretext, the United States has beggared the institutions dedicated to welfare of people in this country: our systems of education and healthcare, our state and local governments, and the very infrastructure that supports our daily lives. Ezra Klein of the Washington Post does a seat-of-the-pants tally of "the cost of Osama bin Laden," in which he notes that "even a very partial, very haphazard, tallying of the costs from 9/11 reaches swiftly into the trillions of dollars. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars, neither of which would’ve been launched without bin Laden’s provocation, will cost us a few trillion on their own, actually."
Can We Go Home Now?
Now that Osama bin Laden has died in Pakistan, no possible justification remains for the U.S. war in Afghanistan, let alone Iraq.
It is time, almost a decade after September 11, 2001, to bring all the troops home. It is time to heal their physical, mental, and emotional traumas. It is time to think about repairing the damage that has been done in the hunt for one man to many countries – Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and finally, to the United States itself.