Even before the attack of 9/11, Osama bin Laden explained his goal to the British journalist Robert Fisk: “I pray to God that he will permit us to turn the United States into a shadow of itself,” he said.
He hoped to provoke the U.S. into bombing or invading Muslim land which would radicalize moderate Muslims and unite the umma in a jihad against the “universal enemy.” This would bleed America and drain its military resources, making it too weak to oppress poor people.
The ill-conceived U.S invasion of Iraq played right into his hands. Does anyone think there are fewer terrorists in the world because of that invasion?
U.S. forces routed al Qaeda from Afghanistan in just weeks, but we are still there twelve years later, reprising Soviet mistakes from the past.
Those occupations have become a rallying cry for Islamic extremists in Asia, the Middle East and Africa who use the al Qaeda banner for fundraising purposes.
The invasion and so-called Global War on Terror accelerated the creation of an American national security state, which has seen the military budget double and at least 263 security organizations created or reorganized. We now spend more on national security than the rest of the world combined.
Our massive security apparatus routinely conducts drone attacks without a declaration of war; carries out kidnapping, rendition, torture and assassination overseas; and deploys extraordinary surveillance assets around the world.
The terror threat has been used to justify the indefinite detention of citizens, the pre-emptive arrest of would-be protesters and journalists, FISA courts that authorize secret searches, a Patriot Act which allows “national security letters” to demand, without probable cause, that organizations turn over information on citizens, and the federal prosecution of journalists and whistleblowers.
Simultaneously, we have militarized our police forces with federal anti-terror money to form SWAT teams everywhere, which, according to Radley Balko (Rise of the Warrior Cop), “violently smash into private homes more than one hundred times per day,” usually in the middle of the night, to break up poker games, confiscate marijuana, and apprehend non-violent drug offenders, which we imprison at a rate seven times Europe’s.
Platoons of riot police dressed like Robocops have been used to suppress non-violent protests with pepper spray, clubs, flash grenades, and tear gas; video footage shows that police initiated the violence during Occupy Wall Street and University of California protests.
The government now routinely uses secret evidence to detain individuals and to prosecute suspects in federal and military courts.
The most extreme power any political leader can assert is the right to execute his own citizens without due process. The Bush administration asserted that power in theory, but the Obama administration has exercised it in practice, deliberately killing three U.S. citizens in drone strikes in Yemen.
The threat reality does not justify such radical militarization. The New America Foundation and Syracuse University identified 212 “jihadists,” foreign and domestic, accused of plotting terrorism against the U.S. since 9/11, along with 179 “non-jihadists,” three-quarters of whom were right wing extremists. Jihadists killed 20 people during that time period while domestic extremist groups killed at least 29 people. This is a miniscule fraction of the people killed with handguns, in car accidents, and from smoking.
The consequence of this militarization — and some other bad economic decisions — is that we have shorted investment at home in education, energy, health, research and development and infrastructure.
This partially accounts for our decline from No. 1 in high school graduation to 22nd among industrialized countries, according to the OECD. We now rank 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading compared to students in 27 industrialized countries.
WMD are the real threat. Our best defense is effective intelligence collection and competent law enforcement, along with judicious use of military force.
Instead, some are agitating for U.S. military involvement in another sectarian conflict, this time in Syria, involving Assad/Shia/Hizbollah on one side and Sunni/al Qaeda on the other. That cannot possibly turn out well.
The “War on Terror” has indeed bled our society, costing tens of thousands of casualties and trillions of dollars. It also energized would-be jihadists, as bin Laden hoped, and damaged our world standing. Yet some will always believe that this time U.S. involvement will turn out differently; we can lob a few cruise missiles and settle the issue.
At what point does endless war so militarize our society and bankrupt our economy that the republic is threatened? A dead bin Laden may still win by default.
Tom Maertens served as National Security Council director for nonproliferation and homeland defense under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and as deputy coordinator for counterterrorism in the State Department during and after 9/11.