It has now been four years since the largest foreign terrorist attack within the United States, and the war on terror, for all its expensive destruction and rebuilding overseas and attacks on civil liberties at home, has still failed to apprehend the presumed chief culprit behind 9/11.
Bush is probably too preoccupied with the horrendous aftermath of Katrina — surely doing everything he can to deliver "millions of tons of food" to the victims — to worry about the loose ends from the last domestic catastrophe over which he presided. And yet, it seems a fair question to ask: Where’s Osama?
Four years ago, Americans who found the approaches of perpetual war and a Big Brother surveillance state to be undesirable, unnecessary or counterproductive means of bringing justice to the 9/11 mass murderers were accused of not facing reality. Treating 9/11 as a crime, we were told, would never nab the villains. Only by unleashing the dogs of war, by going on the offensive, and by shifting the "balance" from liberty toward security could America destroy the enemy, neutralize the immediate threat, and ensure our freedom and safety.
Well, let us consider what has happened in the last four years. On October 7, 2001, less than one month after the terrorist attacks, the U.S. government dropped the façade of negotiations with the Taliban and launched an incredibly popular military assault, originally called "Operation Infinite Justice" but soon renamed "Operation Enduring Freedom," on the impoverished and persecuted nation of Afghanistan. Hundreds if not thousands of innocent Afghans were killed in a matter of weeks and hundreds of thousands were soon displaced from their homes. Upon losing thousands of innocent compatriots to a hijacking atrocity engineered and carried out by a handful of Saudis, Americans somehow found comfort in the brutality inflicted upon Afghans who had done absolutely nothing against Americans. A country already ravaged by years of war, famine and the Taliban was bombed into the Stone Age and earlier, as hysterical jingoistic Americans cheered on the horror. The U.S. government hired Afghan warlords to track down whatever people in Afghanistan might have had something to do with 9/11. Afghan warlords succeeded in rounding up lots of people, many of them likely innocent, to hand over for detention under U.S. custody in exchange for a cash reward. The warlords failed insofar as Osama, if he was indeed there, got away.
Operation Enduring Freedom is the new forgotten war. In fact, it also involved U.S. intervention in the Philippines, now completely forgotten, where one American died in combat and ten in training exercises. The U.S. government now has a puppet regime in Afghanistan that barely manages to run Kabul. Most of the country is ruled by warlords, including elements of the Taliban, and the fighting and terror continue.
Right after the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Congress passed and Bush signed into law the gargantuan USA PATRIOT Act, which significantly altered the relationship between the federal government and the people with respect to civil liberties and due process. The Act empowers federal agents to administer "sneak and peak" searches of person and property without informing the searched parties, and to distribute "national security letters" to Americans, forcing them to disclose whatever information the state wants and preventing them from informing anyone else of their contact with the feds, under penalty of imprisonment. The PATRIOT Act contains many other egregious provisions, including the one used to sentence Canadian citizen Mohammed Hussein to prison for his failure to correctly fill out the paperwork for a state license for his money wiring service. Hussein was the first person convicted under the Act, and the law punished him retroactively, despite the ruling judge’s belief that he was obviously not a danger or a terrorist but a rather innocent man. Yet some Americans still believe the Act has never been abused.
Also in the wake of 9/11, the government rounded up more than a thousand individuals for overstaying their visas and other technical violations of the law, depriving them of any rights to contact a lawyer or to habeas corpus. Dozens of Americans were similarly detained on "material witness" status.
In December of 2001, the government nationalized airport security by creating the Transportation Security Administration, an organization with lots of discretionary power over the American people but a pathetic record of dangerous incompetence. (For a stark example of the organization’s ineptness, in 2003 the TSA dragged its feet for more than a month before investigating college student Nathaniel Heatwole’s e-mail to the agency admitting that he had planted box cutters on two commercial airplanes as a practice in civil disobedience to demonstrate the security flaws in the system. To this day, the absurdities continue.)
All of these augmentations of federal power and assaults on basic American liberty rammed through in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 were necessary, we were told. After all, bin Laden was still free, and needed to be caught, and if we would only trust the federal government with some new powers, our leaders would do all within their ability to bring the perpetrators to justice.
And then the pretense began to seriously give way. In March of 2002, Bush held a press conference during which he said, "I am deeply concerned about Iraq, and so should the American people be concerned about Iraq. And so should people who love freedom be concerned about Iraq."
Yet, when asked at the same press conference about Osama bin Laden, and whether Americans can really feel safe until Osama is caught dead or alive, Bush responded,
"As I say, we hadn’t heard much from him. And I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s at the center of any command structure. And, you know, again, I don’t know where he is.
"I’ll repeat what I said: I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run. I was concerned about him when he had taken over a country. I was concerned about the fact that he was basically running Afghanistan and calling the shots for the Taliban.
"But, you know, once we set out the policy and started executing the plan, he became — we shoved him out more and more on the margins.
"He has no place to train his al Qaeda killers anymore. And if we find a training camp, we’ll take care of it — either we will or our friends will."
So only six months after 9/11 and a full year before Shock and Awe, Bush was saying he was "deeply concerned about Iraq" and yet "not that concerned about" bin Laden. His partisans made it clear, however, that Bush would catch Osama, and that all we needed to do was give him more time.
Meanwhile, the attacks on civil liberties continued. The government even put an American citizen, Jose Padilla, into a military prison after a federal judge ordered that the warrant against him be vacated since he had not been charged of a crime. At the time of his transfer to a Naval brig, the government claimed it had averted a dirty bomb plot with its new powers to detain "enemy combatants" without a trial. Presumably, the government would use its new powers to stop terrorism and maybe even find the culprits behind 9/11. Padilla is still imprisoned without due process. But where’s Osama?
Quickly after 9/11 the Bush administration had begun floating the idea of a national program of Stasi-esque tattletales called TIPS, but in 2002 Congress and the American people rejected it as just a little over the top. The new Information Awareness Office, headed by John Poindexter, similarly retracted a bit insofar as it removed its particularly unsettling logo from its website (and later changed its mission from "Total Information Awareness" to "Terrorist Information Awareness").
In November of 2002, Bush created a new cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security, ostensibly to better coordinate the old agencies now absorbed under its fold. At the time it was argued that only a new department could optimally handle a national emergency. The agency is currently doing a fine job bungling up the relief efforts in the Gulf Coast.
In late 2002 and early 2003, the drums for war with Iraq exploded in intensity and accelerated in tempo. The period was characterized by hysteria over Saddam’s fictitious weapons program; the ridiculous prospect, too flimsy even for bad science fiction, of being attacked by Iraq’s unmanned drones (a fantasy which turned out to be a based on a model made of plywood and string); and the notion that, in the case of terrorism, only covering all the doorways and windows with duct tape would protect us. The Bush administration pointed to Saddam’s regime as evil incarnate, and worthy of being changed from Islamist theocracy to a relatively liberal secular Arab state — the opposite of what ended up happening.
Organized opposition to war with Iraq had more time to ferment than any such dissenting response to the war on Afghanistan. Millions of people in hundreds of cities around the world mobilized in the largest mass protest demonstration in world history. Consequently, there was even more childish talk of traitorous anti-Americans, allied with The Enemy to destroy the United States. Both before and during the war, protestors were compared to terrorists, terrorized by police, shot with wooden bullets, rounded up into "free speech zones," spied upon by the Feds and registered into federal no-fly lists. France, too, became an enemy, and French Fries became "Freedom Fries." Meanwhile, the government was concealing its draft for a second PATRIOT Act — called the "Domestic Security and Enhancement Act" and even far worse than its predecessor.
On March 20, 2003, after giving Saddam a final ultimatum to disarm himself of weapons he did not have or face war with the largest military power in world history, Bush launched a bombing campaign against and invasion of Iraq.
By the time the Iraq war began, most of the subterfuge that the government’s main goal was to catch Osama was long gone. Bush stopped mentioning the terrorist leader altogether in his speeches — although eventually in a debate with John Kerry he claimed that he realized that, yes, Osama attacked America. The Iraq war became the "central front" in the war on terror due to its supposed importance in making Americans safer by making foreigners freer.
We can very quickly recap what has happened since the government put almost all its energy into Iraq. It has been two and a half years since Operation Iraqi Freedom, originally called "Operation Iraqi Liberation," began. Despite the staggering death toll in the thousands for Iraqis, Americans and others — despite the staged fall of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad, the histrionic Bush speech on the U.S.S. Abraham in front of that famous "Mission Accomplished" banner, the confirmation that Saddam, just as he claimed, had no weapons of mass destruction, the contrived discovery of Saddam in a rat hole, and multiple "watersheds" for Iraqi democracy and self-governance from the "turnover" last June and the elections in January to the current deliberation over a Soviet-style Constitution — despite all of this, Iraqis are obviously not free, nor Americans safer, nor is al Qaeda diminished in its resources, resolve and influence. On the contrary, war with Iraq has done precisely what many of its critics had always warned: it has radicalized the region and served as a recruiting device for America’s enemies, most notably al Qaeda. And of course it hasn’t produced the capture of Osama bin Laden, who, as everyone should have known, had nothing at all to do with the Iraq War.
The war against the Bill of Rights has continued, not even taking a break during the last presidential election. We will soon enough have a national ID card. The dungeons in the far reaches of the empire continue to exude the tortuous screams of detainees, many of whom are very likely innocent, even as government officials disarm Americans in New Orleans and stuff them into auditoriums-turned-concentration camps. At this point, the notion that America has brought down police statism overseas is painfully belied by its injection of police statism into Louisiana as a response to a government-caused emergency.
Hundreds of billions of dollars have been consumed in the policies known together as the war on terror. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, including two-thirds as many Americans as died on 9/11; hundreds of thousands have lost their loved ones, homes and livelihoods; and uncounted thousands have been wounded or traumatized for life. Incalculable property damage has occurred. The American empire is feared and distrusted around the globe. Our economic solvency and civil liberties have not been in as poor shape for decades. And we are no safer than we were four years ago.
Even if all this destruction and death had brought us the head of Osama, it would be hard to justify it. Tens of thousands of innocents killed is a mighty high price, even for such a noble purpose.
And yet, where is Osama? He still hasn’t been caught. For such dismal failure, the government might as well have done nothing after 9/11. The same failure to apprehend Osama could have been purchased for a much smaller price in treasure, freedom and blood. If the government had reacted with more focus and fewer indiscriminate invasions of American liberty and foreign countries, just as some of us had proposed, there would today be much less devastation — and if Osama had still not been caught, we would be no worse off on that front.
On the other hand, as long as Osama is out there, the war can continue. Nothing is better for government growth than its own failures to fulfill its supposed duties. Regardless of whether politicians and bureaucrats want to fail, they have a systematic disincentive to succeed in wiping out the very enemy that provides a rationale for their power and aggrandizement. This disincentive comes into play in all political pursuits, whether healthcare policy, education policy or foreign policy. For politicians, it’s often better to create more monsters to slay than to destroy the ones already out there. This fact might help explain why only six months after 9/11 Bush said he was "not that concerned about" the man who destroyed the World Trade Center, and has accordingly spent the last four years waging war on the innocent people of Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United States of America instead.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.