The Talking Dog

May 3, 2011, Sober reflections

"I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy." - Cool fake quote attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Those who wish to take a break from the perversely celebratory atmosphere depicted in American media (btw, for those who think that New York City has erupted in a spontaneous outpouring of jubilation, my observations are of continued... sobriety), and who, in particular, are irritated at the sights of even smugger than usual Rudy Giuliani and Dick Cheney, but who nonetheless think that my reactions to the targeted assassination killing in a "fire fight" of Osama bin Laden by American military personnel known as "Seal Team Six" should have been a bit more "measured" ... (even as I forgot to note that the killing took place eight years to the day from the infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech)... well... for you, I have been fortunate to have received other more "sober" assessments that fully capture my feelings on the subject... and so I share them:

This, from Rebecca Gordon of War-Times.Org, asks much the same questions I do (including its lede "can we go home now?")... a snippet:

Under this pretext ["capture or kill" bin Laden], 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,

No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination."

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."

Neal Macdonald, writing for the CBC, notes that "the Devil likely died happy," in the sense that it would seem that OBL's legacy was far more successful than we care to give him credit for:

But when bin Laden directed those airplanes at civilians ten years ago, he stole a lot more from this nation than the lives of 3,000 of her citizens.

He taught this country the consequences of operating an open, free society. Literally, he showed Americans the price of their liberty, how many of their principles they'd be willing to cast aside, and how quickly they would do it.

In other words, bin Laden showed American exceptionalists how unexceptionally they behave when faced with horrors most older nations have endured.

Beginning the day after the attacks, the United States became a meaner, more paranoid, more impoverished place.

Even as President Bush reassured America's Muslims the U.S. was at war with terror, not with Islam, the nation's security organs and a great many of its citizens rounded on anything that even looked Muslim.

Thousands of people were locked up on flimsy pretexts and held for months without trial. Muslims learned to live with hard stares and suspicion. They were pulled off flights for the sin of having prayed publicly. Gradually, the Muslim world began to believe it was at war.

One can only imagine bin Laden's delight.

Congress, its knees jerking, passed the grotesquely named Patriot Act, removing civil liberties that took centuries to earn. America's famous dedication to individual rights shriveled in the sudden heat. National security, rather than life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness became the fundamental determinant.

Even now, "red" states are passing bills forbidding Shariah law, as though Arizona is on the cusp of a Muslim takeover.

Americans surrendered to ever more intrusive searches and probes at airports, carried out largely to create the illusion they were being protected.

WAR ON TERROR banners crawled constantly across the bottoms of cable TV screens, as a national media seized by a shameful fit of jingoism whipped up an already fear-stricken population. New plots were everywhere. Suddenly, the world absolutely teemed with terrorists who "hate us for being free."

President Bush, as rulers tend to do, seized the moment to expand his power, guided by Nixon's rule that it isn't illegal if the president does it.

Telecommunications companies were press-ganged into participating in illegal wiretap operations against American citizens.

Habeas corpus was ignored; the White House arrogated to itself the power to pronounce an American citizen an "enemy combatant," stripped of legal rights or due process. Government secrecy and classification of information expanded exponentially.

At the president's direction, White House lawyers concocted specious legal arguments allowing government agents to practise torture. They also began kidnapping people off foreign streets, sometimes the wrong people altogether, and shipping them off to regimes that didn't bother at all with legal opinions.

But bin Laden didn't just prod Americans into disregarding their own laws and principles when dealing with their real and supposed enemies; he goaded them into turning on each other.

Bush, on the night of the attacks, declared that there were only two choices: you were with America, meaning him, or with the terrorists. No middle ground.

"Liberal," in conservative circles, became synonymous with "soft on terror."

Those who opposed going to war in Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, were portrayed as unpatriotic haters of America.

The cleavage between right and left, red and blue, urban and rural, became deeper than at any time in modern history.

And then of course there was the cost. Setting aside the trillions expended in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have bin Laden to thank for a lot of today’s economic misery.

And finally, our friend Karen Greenberg, writing in the Guardian, tells us of perversions of justice left in OBL's wake:

What we need to remember, though, is that the effect of bin Laden's reign of terror on the notion of justice was to pervert it. Under the rubric of fighting terror, the United States rolled back its hallowed notions of civil liberties, its embrace of modernity, and even its reliance on its own courts. We delved into medieval-style torture, we reneged on our courts as a viable option for trying terrorists, and we blindly took aim at a religion, rather than its disaffected hijackers.

It is not surprising – but needs to be noted – that bin Laden was killed in a gunfight. The order was to kill not capture, even in a face-to-face encounter, which this apparently was. We thus forfeited the right to parade his excesses to the world at large – including to the thousands of Muslims whose family members have been killed by al-Qaida attacks. We ran, knowingly, from the chance to hold him in custody, and to punish him by due process and make him account to the world for what he has done.

This, then, was the inevitable ending to the way the United States has chosen to conduct this war. Bin Laden was an enemy so dreaded and so feared that his killing by military execution was the only possible end for a country that had given up so much of itself in his name. This was not a criminal, it was judged, that our courts, even after ten years, could handle. This was not an enemy whose fate the United States wanted to debate with the world and in the world's criminal courts. His killing put an end to innumerable conversations that would, arguably, have continued to confound nations and their citizens. In his death, as in his life, we followed his lead when it came to thinking about justice.

There is no denying that bin Laden's death is the end of the menace of al-Qaida as we know it: that without his leadership, a diffuse network, frayed at the edges by a decade of effective counterterrorism and harried by military interventions, will likely fall further into disarray. But a word of warning may be in order. Many of the pundits and politicians today are warning us not to let our guard down, to beef up security, to remember to be ever-vigilant – even if the immediate menace in our sights has been vanquished.

This is a version of the refrain that has marked the decade since 9/11: in fear, in hatred, in revenge, we need to fortify ourselves by forsaking many of our ideals. With this refrain in mind, we Americans, in the name of bin Laden, have been lured into a compromise with our own principles, whether it's on the matter of torture, of detention or of war without end.

Perhaps, in sending bin Laden's body into the waters of the ocean, we should consider sending all that he represented to us to the bottom of the sea as well. Perhaps we could, in his absence, remember once again who we are, and begin to rebuild our confidence in ourselves – starting with our system of justice.

This has been... "Sober reflections."