The death of Osama bin Laden has left the United States with a type of morning-after effect. For 10 years, an ever-expanding war on terror has been defined by one central dark figure: Osama bin Laden. It is perhaps not surprising that in a celebrity-driven society, even our wars seemed personality driven. For many, Iraq was about Saddam Hussein. Afghanistan was about Osama bin Laden. With both of these defining figures gone, however, it is time to take account of what has been lost, and what has been gained.
For civil libertarians, the legacy of bin Laden is most troubling because it shows how the greatest injuries from terror are often self-inflicted. Bin Laden’s twisted notion of success was not the bringing down of two buildings in New York or the partial destruction of the Pentagon. It was how the response to those attacks by the United States resulted in our abandonment of core principles and values in the “war on terror.” Many of the most lasting impacts of this ill-defined war were felt domestically, not internationally.
Starting with George W. Bush, the 9/11 attacks were used to justify the creation of a massive counterterrorism system with growing personnel and budgets designed to find terrorists in the heartland. Laws were rewritten to prevent citizens from challenging searches and expanding surveillance of citizens. Leaders from both parties acquiesced as the Bush administration launched programs of warrantless surveillance, sweeping arrests of Muslim citizens and the creation of a torture program.
What has been most chilling is that the elimination of Saddam and now bin Laden has little impact on this system, which seems to continue like a perpetual motion machine of surveillance and searches. While President Dwight D. Eisenhower once warned Americans of the power of the military-industrial complex, we now have a counterterrorism system that employs tens of thousands, spends tens of billions of dollars each year and is increasingly unchecked in its operations.
Just as leaders are unwilling to take responsibility to end the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, we face the same vacuum of leadership on civil liberties. Whether it is groping at airports or warrantless surveillance or the denial of rights to accused terrorists, our security laws will continue to be justified under a “war on terror” that by definition can never end. There will always be terrorism, and thus we will remain a nation at war — with all of the expanded powers given to government agencies and officials.
If bin Laden wanted to change America, he succeeded. Bush officials were quick to claim that our laws and even our Constitution made us vulnerable to attack — even though later investigations showed that the attacks could have been prevented under existing laws. Despite the negligence of agencies such as the FBI and CIA in allowing the attacks, those same agencies were given unprecedented power and budgets in the aftermath of 9/11.
President Obama has continued, and even expanded, many of the controversial Bush programs. His administration moved to quash dozens of public interest lawsuits fighting warrantless surveillance. Both Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have refused to investigate, let alone prosecute, officials for torture under the “water-boarding” program — despite clear obligations under treaties for such action. The Obama administration has continued military tribunals and the Caesar-like authority of the president to send some defendants to real courts and some to makeshift tribunals. The administration recently instructed investigators that they can ignore constitutional protections such as Miranda rights to combat terror. Once the power of the FBI and other agencies were expanded, no one had the courage to order the resumption of lost civil liberties or the return of prior limits on government power or surveillance. It is not the lack of security but the lack of courage in our leaders that continues the expansion of this security state.
The death of bin Laden is not the marker of an end of a period but a reminder that there is no end to this period. For those who have long wanted expansion of presidential powers and the limitation of constitutional rights, bin Laden gave them an irresistible opportunity to reshape this country — and the expectations of our citizens. We now accept thousands of security cameras in public places, intrusive physical searches and expanding police powers as the new reality of American life. The privacy that once defined this nation is now viewed as a quaint, if not naive, concept. Police power works like the release of gas in a closed space: expand the space and the gas fills it. It is rare in history to see ground lost in civil liberties be regained through concessions of power by the government. Our terrorism laws have transcended bin Laden and even 9/11. They have become the status quo. That is the greatest tragedy of bin Laden’s legacy — not what he did to us, but whatwe have done to ourselves.
Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors.