Bin Laden: A Time To Reflect

Below is today’s column in USA Today on the death of Osama Bin Laden.

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.

215 thoughts on “Bin Laden: A Time To Reflect”

  1. For those that may have missed the news. The SEAL team seized 2.7 terabytes of material stored on hard drives and media storage devices from Bin Laden’s compound.

    To put that into a real world perspective, one terabyte of storage can hold about 220 million pages of text or about 2,000 hours of audio recordings. The SEALS seized almost three times that much.

    The only way that many files could be sifted through rapidly is to use indexing software.

    I cannot imagine what it must be like to be an Al Qaeda operative this week. Anyone who had the Xanax franchise for them right now would do well. Makes one wonder if the attempt to get Anwar al-Awlaki was the result of that intelligence data dump.

  2. My business card has an inkblot on it. You have to figure out what it means before I can see you.

  3. Thanks Doc OS for taking the time on one of those “Momma said there would be day’s like this” days.

    Regarding that Rorschach image moment, perhaps I just need one of your business cards…do you charge for initial consultations?

  4. I just got in a few minutes ago and looked at this thread. It has been a very long day, and on my way home the car conked out and I had to have it towed. Not the best thing to put me in a good mood.

    I watched the video a couple of times and rewound it to re-watch the referenced 0.36 moment. The photographer in me kicked in and what I was was a masking technique, but nothing else significant. I have been a serious photographer for more than half a century and there is nothing wrong with my eyesight. Not sure what else folks might see but all I saw was a slide show of some great pinup photos. I like Roy Orbison, and hated to learn of his passing way too young.

    As for Veronica Lake, she was one of my childhood favorites. That hair is SEXY!

  5. rafflaw,

    You are *way* more of a true gentleman than I thought! Let’s see what Doc OZ er OS says.

  6. Ms. EM.

    Regardin’ what I saw, well, (clears hisn throat) Um,…I’ll tell you what. I just called rafflaw a gentleman. Let’s have him watch the video and see what he saw, if anything. If he sees what I thought I saw then I saw what he saw, since he is a gentleman and all. If he did not see what I thought I saw then then I did not see what I saw. Deal rafflaw?

    Veronica Lake, you ask?

    I went water ski’n there as a lad, no wait, that was Possum Kingdom Lake in Texas.

    I never got the pleasure of seeing Ms. Lake’s films or pinups–that I remember( I done a Goolgle search). From her images online, she was an exceptionally beautiful woman and died too young and confused. Why does that happen so often to starlets…I can see why your old man, er, you father liked her.

  7. rafflaw,

    I agree completely with your Declaration of War and leaving Afghanistan statements. As in some other rare cases, we will just have to agree to disagree respectfully.

    Others have called you a gentleman recently and I agree. Since you became a guest poster, you have added abundantly to the topics and discussions. Before that time, you mostly posted late in the evenings after a long day of lawyering. I prefer your status of posting now.

  8. Elaine,
    I have to agree with Mike S. Jean Rogers was a real looker in those Flash Gordon serials.

  9. Former Federal LEO
    May 6, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    Hoyl Cow, Ms. EM,

    Our resident Ph.D. psychologist will have something to analyze about those of us that saw something in that Rorschach image moment at time 0:36 +.

    Ugh, wait a minute, I saw nothing!


    Should I ask what you thought you saw???

    BTW, what do you think of Veronica Lake?

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