First things first. I stand in awe of the utter fearlessness and straight-up badassery of the soldiers and airmen in the 160th SOAR and SEAL Team Six. And, of course, the much maligned CIA really did a hell of a job finding him and running the mission. And yes, I am one of those people who poured a scotch when I heard the news. I will not apologize for feeling relief and deep satisfaction at the death of Osama bin Laden. More than anyone else, he's responsible for the deaths of thousands on 9/11 and the resulting War on Terror that has caused the deaths of thousands more. As a symbol and as catharsis for America, his death is very important.
But in many ways, this changes nothing. Al Qaeda won't go away now. Anwar al Awlaki is still hanging out in Yemen with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The Taliban isn't going to stop fighting in Afghanistan. The insurgents in Iraq won't stop fomenting violence. And Americans don't seem eager to stop willingly giving up their civil liberties in the name of security. In some sense, as Radley Balko points out, Bin Laden had already won. The most depressing part is that not only did we let him, we helped him. Bin Laden provided the spark, but we willingly fanned the flames.
In some ways, it almost seems wrong to put this much significance on bin Laden's death. After all, the overblown significance attributed to his life and his goals caused many of the instances of overreach in the name of security. As Ross Douthat's very good column from Monday puts it: bin Laden was always weak. Where we erred was in not realizing that.
So will his death cause policymakers to rethink the choices we've made over the last decade? Will we stop taking away civil liberties in ways that do little to make us safer? Right now, the signs point to no. Unsurprisingly, bin Laden's death is being taken as vindication for whatever position politicians held before. Torture supporters want to bring back waterboarding. Anti-war advocates want us out of Afghanistan. This event does not seem to have changed anyone's mind.
To me, and others, this seems like the perfect time to declare victory in the War on Terror and go home. Maybe soldiers can stop dying in a fruitless quest to bring Western democracy to Afghanistan. Maybe we can start dismantling the massive industry that has grown up around this misguided "war." Maybe we can get some of our rights back. Maybe the defense budget can stop growing and start shrinking. Maybe we can stop taking our damn shoes off when we go through security.
Hey, I can dream, can't I?
UPDATE: Douthat writes to dissent from Balko's piece, but I think they're arguing different things. Balko isn't laying American economic decline at Bin Laden's feet, he's laying the steady erosion of civil liberties over the last decade at his feet. Balko is an ardent civil libertarian and in his mind these measures are antithetical to the principles underlying the great project that is American democracy.
Ezra Klein is the one Ross should be arguing with, as he seems far more willing to lay a large amount of the economic problems of the last few years at the feet of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. I don't find that argument as convincing, but there is some merit to it. Douthat's erstwhile co-author, Reihan Salam, just spent much of a blog post emphasizing the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in an attempt to downplay the effects of the Bush tax cuts on our fiscal problems.
In the end, there's no way to resolve these arguments. But I firmly believe that from a civil liberties standpoint, Bin Laden did serious damage to America. In that, I definitely agree with Balko.