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. Former Fed,
    I don’t think the political assassination idea is proper because he was not the head of state. I think this episode needs to be reviewed from the perspective that we have not had a formal declaration of war since WWII and the authorization to go into Afghanistan is what would apply here, IMO. It is interesting that the media seems concerned about this special ops mission when this is not the first time the US has crossed borders to grab people who sometimes are killed in the process. How many people were killed in Panama in order to kidnap their President? How many people were killed in Iraq without a declaration of war? I am not suggesting that killing OBL was a great act, except for the fact that he is no longer able to help al-Qaeda plan attacks. My main issue is that fact that if we are legally in Afghanistan and we went there to get OBL, then I believe the mission into Pakistan would be legal.

  2. Back on Topic.

    Posted this afternoon:


    Osama Bin Laden Dead: Was Killing The Al Qaeda Leader Legal?

    Human rights groups, lawyers and academics have suggested, among other things, that this could violate an Executive Order that forbids the U.S. government and its employees from engaging in ‘political assassination’.

    The Guardian quotes Prof Nick Grief, an international lawyer at Kent University, as saying that the attack had the appearance of an “extrajudicial killing without due process of the law”.

    End Quote}

  3. Doggonehitall,

    That video messed with my spelling: SB = Holy Cow!

  4. 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!

  5. Annette Funicello. Mickey Mouse Club. Oh, wait. Are we talking post-adolescent?

  6. Guys:

    There will never be another Ingrid Bergman, but any hands for Susan Heyward?

  7. When I was in graduate school, Ann Bancroft was the Arts Scholar in Residence at the University. I saw her just about every day for months, since she used an office in our building. And the rehearsal stage was in our auditorium classroom. Eat your collective hearts out. 😉

  8. “Grace Kelly was beautiful, but my I think my favorite female actress of all time was Ann Bancroft.”


    She was great and the interchange beyond hysterical. Sad to admit that mine was Jean Rogers who played Dale in the original Flash Gordon serial. Never underestimate the sexual imprinting on a tender young male mind of a beautiful girl in slinky dresses. I could have killed Ming for daring to aspire to her. Liked Jean Harlow too.
    This bears no correlation of course to the fact that my mother was a petite, yet curvy blond. Purely coincidental.

  9. Swarthmore mom wrote (and in agreement is Otteray Scribe):

    “Why do you single out Obama? You can vote against him next year.”


    I am not singling out Obama. Had it been any other president I would had done the same. I voted for a person who I thought was a bona fide constitutional lawyer who—with his attorney general—would right the many constitutional wrongs exacted on the U.S. and the world by the previous administration and its major participants, all of whom I learned to despise.

    Mr. Obama and AG Holder are flimflammers reminiscent of a movie I saw in the 1960s (The Flimflam Man). They are political and legal con artists of the first order.

    “I want to have a look at them (their) cards”
    “They’re looking for more suckers”
    “What have you got for a logical alternative?”

  10. Mike,

    Grace Kelly was beautiful, but my I think my favorite female actress of all time was Ann Bancroft.

    “Prisoner of Second Avenue” need I say more?

    Edna: We’ve been robbed.

    Mel: What do you mean, robbed?

    Edna: Robbed. Robbed. What does rob mean? They come in, they take things out. They used to be yours, now they’re theirs.
    We’ve been robbed!

  11. Rafflaw,

    I thought (incorrectly) that I’d responded to this earlier.

    Rafflaw: “If the Seals had been able to capture OBL alive, where would they take him? To Gitmo? Where would he be tried? The Republicans wouldn’t allow him to be tried anywhere but Gitmo and then we would hear about the kangaroo court process there.(rightfully so) I don’;t think there was any way we could have properly tried him here in this political climate other than in the military commissions.”

    At the very least OBL was an enemy combatant subject to a military tribunal. More importantly, we don’t ignore the judicial process simply because we find it inconvenient.

    As I remarked earlier “Where is the integrity of a legal system where members could invoke your exception any time they felt a trial would be inconvenient?”

    The whole idea of terrorism has been turned on its head so that the people claiming to be fighting it are the ones leveraging it to further decimate our freedoms in the name of ‘protection.’ And make no mistake, it is a protection racket.

    Do you know you are twice as likely to be killed by a falling vending machine than in a terrorist attack? And yet you stand there and say “how could we try OBL?”

    Get a grip man and stand your ground.

  12. Otteray Scribe: “This is manufactured outrage. The Democrat authorized the strike that got him where Shrub McFlightsuit failed. Not only a Democrat, but he is that “dirty Kenyan Muslim who hates America” brown guy. Sorry, I cannot get worked up over your argument. As I said before, if I had been on that raiding party, I would have lost no sleep if it had been me that offed him.”

    The only one manufacturing outrage here is you. It’s not the killing of Bin Laden that bothers me, but the wholesale disregard for the law involved in the whole 9/11 event; all ten years of it.

    First there was all the (accept it on faith) administrative road blocks put up to keep people, like F.B.I agents O’Neil & Crawley from finding out about or preventing 9/11.

    Then there was the “bin Laden did it” but we don’t have to show you a prima facie case; just accept it on faith tripe.

    Then there was the (accept it on faith) “if everyone’s at fault, then no one’s to blame” crap and other frauds contained in the 9/11 Commission Report.

    All you’ve been doing is cobbling together outcome deterministic back fill to fallaciously support your arguments.

    Your little temper tantrum above is further proof that you’ve been singing the same old song: step into your histrionic imagination and accept it all on faith.

    I have no patience for stupidity en masse; no matter who’s selling it.

  13. Bob: Where was the outrage when Bill Clinton fired Tomahawk missiles hat OBL’s hideout in the 1990s, and George Bush the Lesser dropped JDAMs on his hideout a few years later? When that happened, did they try to determine if he was armed or unarmed at the time potential death rained from the sky?

    This is manufactured outrage. The Democrat authorized the strike that got him where Shrub McFlightsuit failed. Not only a Democrat, but he is that “dirty Kenyan Muslim who hates America” brown guy. Sorry, I cannot get worked up over your argument. As I said before, if I had been on that raiding party, I would have lost no sleep if it had been me that offed him.

  14. “This town will be safe ’til tomorrow.”


    With that line it shows that even at an early age you were destined to be a lawyer. I on the other hand was too
    awash with strange feelings, for a 7 year old, about Grace Kelly.

  15. Otteray Scribe: “Bob, they kill enemy combatants in raids and attacks. Had he come out with his hands up, perhaps they would have cuffed him and taken him prisoner at which time the rules of the Geneva Convention come into play. Can we all agree that the chance of that happening were somewhere between nil, none and zilch?”

    Bin Laden was unarmed.


    “Still, as the raid is now commonly understood to have transpired, the “firefight” that was said to have lasted for “most” of the forty-minute operation (as the senior DOD briefer alleged), or “throughout” it (as the statement that DOD prepared for Jay Carney stated), which was said to have persisted even as the SEALs “were making their way up the staircase in that compound” (as Leon Panetta told PBS), and which was believed to have “killed” bin Laden (as John Brennan claimed), was later revealed to have been, in fact, a volley of gunfire that erupted at the very outset of the raid; ended quickly; and involved only one resident of the compound: Abu Ahmed Al-Kuwaiti, the courier to bin Laden who was the first to confront the Navy SEALs. The Americans shot and killed Al-Kuwaiti, and a woman with him, in a guesthouse they had to traverse before reaching the main house, on whose third floor bin Laden himself awaited. After the shoot-out with Al-Kuwaiti, the U.S. forces were never fired upon again.”

  16. All I have to say about “High Noon” is Gary Cooper was a badass.

  17. Mike,

    Way to turn my High Noon metaphor on its head. Nonetheless, your comment to Mike Appleton tells me you know what I’m talking about.

    But one important point you forgot about High Noon; Marshall Kane hadn’t been officially relieved yet. His replacement was due the next day.

    Thus the line:

    “This town will be safe ’til tomorrow.”

    So technically, he was still Marshall and merely postponed his early departure.

  18. “You do know that you can’t justify a wrong by citing precedent of other wrongs; right?”


    Yes I do know that an attest to its’ truth. I think I’ve been clear in saying that the whole thing made me queasy. That said I do believe that we need the Rule of Law and to enforce the Constitution, but for the life of me I don’t think that either has existed in the US or the rest of the world.

    That you bring up High noon though is prescient on your part. That was the first movie I remember seeing and mostly understanding in a theater, I was 7. Cinderella didn’t count because what 5 year old couldn’t understand Cinderella/ Anyway High Noon was a great early influence in my life. As you no doubt remember Will Kane was no longer Sheriff and the town’s
    rough legal system didn’t support him. He set out to kill Frank Miller and gang, not capture them, even though he lacked the authority to do either. He had resigned his position and there was no move to reinstate him. Actually that lines up with my point about the killing being justified

    Should he have done otherwise? Not in my opinion. You don’t know how that movie influenced this lonely 7 year old, nor what fights I got into emulating the good LEO. :=)

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