I don’t know how you first learned bin Laden was dead. I learned from a text message.
I don’t know what you said when you found out. I said “Wow!”
I rarely say wow. I never use exclamation points.
We’re not driven only by emotions, of course—we also reason, deliberate. But reasoning comes later, works slower—and even then, it doesn’t take place in an emotional vacuum. Rather, our quick-fire emotions can set us on a course of thinking that’s highly biased, especially on topics we care a great deal about.
I read those words a few days ago in Mother Jones in an article called “The science of why we don’t believe science.”
I still can’t get my reason or my deliberate around bin Laden’s death. So this post is filtered through quick-fire emotions that are highly biased about a topic I care about.
The physical effects of September 11, 2001 were localized to three places in America. The psychic impacts unquestionably were global.
The physical effects of bin Laden’s death were localized to one compound in Pakistan. The psychic effects can also be global.
The meaning of his death is not something to be discovered. It is something to be created.
Bin Laden’s death presents a historic opportunity for American leadership to alter the meaning of American history.
For what do leaders do if not create an image of a possible future and enlist others to work to make that future happen.
What should that future be for homeland security? Do we drift? Do we take advantage of this opportunity and disrupt complacent routine?
George Bush wanted an Office of Homeland Security, not a Department of Homeland Security.
Rightly or not, his instinct was to give Tom Ridge the responsibility — from within the White House — to redirect the efforts of myriad agencies responsible for intelligence, counter terrorism, and the other functions that failed to protect the nation from the 19 hijackers.
Bush’s vision was trumped by reality politics that threatened to out macho him unless he supported a Department of Homeland Security.
What did we gain from being so politically correct?
John Mueller and Mark Stewart — in an eviscerating analysis of homeland security spending (available as a pdf file here) — write “The cumulative increase in expenditures on US domestic homeland security over the decade since 9/11 exceeds one trillion dollars.”
What has that money purchased?
Their analysis supports in extensive detail Bush’s instinct. They cite an observation by Michael Sheehan, former New York City Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism:
The most important work in protecting our country since 9/11 has been accomplished with the capacity that was in place when the event happened, not with any of the new capability bought since 9/11. I firmly believe that those huge budget increases have not significantly contributed to our post-9/11 security….The big wins had little to do with the new programs.
Mueller and Stewart conclude “in order for enhanced United States expenditures on homeland security to be deemed cost-effective …, they would have to deter, prevent, foil, or protect against 1,667 otherwise successful Times-Square type attacks per year, or more than four per day.”
And Mueller and Stewart are being conservative.
Bin Laden’s death may not symbolize the end of the war on terrorism. But his death can, if we want it, be the beginning of the end of the war on terrorism.
That does not mean we ignore the hundreds if not thousands of people who still want to destroy the United States.
But we have institutions more adept than our still-cobbled homeland security apparatus to defend against, disrupt, and destroy that threat: our military, our diplomats, our law enforcement agencies, our intelligence professionals.
We have institutions to protect the border and transportation systems, respond to disasters, ensure the public’s health. Maybe there was a political case at the turn of this century for including most of them within a single organization. Does that case still make sense?
Demobilization after both major 20th century wars did not prove easy for government. There is little reason to expect it to be easy in this century. But if the end of this forever war cannot at least begin with an event like bin Laden’s death, what is it going to take?
There have been almost 6,000 American casualties in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. How many more do there have to be before this thing ends?
Yes, there is still a threat. But is it that big a deal?
Where do we go to find an answer to that question? Is there someone in government who will say? Think tanks? Universities? Google?
John Mueller and Mark Stewart remind us of Stephen Flynn’s 2004 test for when the United States knows it has enough security: when “the American people can conclude that a future attack on U.S. soil will be an exceptional event that does not require wholesale changes in how they go about their lives.”
Are we there yet?
Even after Hitler’s death and Germany’s World War Two surrender, many Nazis continued terrorizing. But they were beaten.
Can we say with this man’s death al Qaeda is beaten?
Can we go about our lives not checking over our shoulders every few minutes to see if death is coming?
Can we get back to creating a more perfect Union?
What vision of homeland security do we want now?
For starters, let’s get rid of the term. I know nobody who thinks the phrase “homeland security” is in any way right for what we are about as a country.
How about human security? Security for people instead of for land.
Porter and Mykleby (in their essay A National Strategic Narrative) offer a way to get closer to that end. Spend less on defense and more on the other dimensions of American life that bolster our security. Invest in “intellectual capital and a sustainable infrastructure of education, health and social services to provide for the continuing development and growth of America’s youth.” And be better stewards of the “natural resources we need for our continued wellbeing, prosperity and economic growth in the world marketplace.”
You can read U.S. Navy Captain Porter and U.S. Marine Colonel Mykleby’s monograph at this link.
America needed to retool economically, politically, and socially after World War Two. It was not a painless process.
Bin Laden’s death offers a new chance to retool.
Bring the troops home. Reduce and re-channel defense and homeland security spending. Attend to human security: jobs, education, health care, civility.
No one knows what bin Laden’s death means.
It can be as big a deal in our history as the Towers crashing and the Pentagon burning. If we allow it.
His death is not the end of the barbarity he symbolized. But it can symbolize the beginning of the end of one struggle and a renewal of where we’ve been before, a time not long ago when:
We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.