After bin Laden: So This is Victory?

I’m happy to see Osama bin Laden dead, though judging from the early details his death came mercifully fast. If it were possible to bring him back to life and kill him again, I’d vote for that.  But I don’t feel seized by joy,  and I don’t understand a statement like this one from President Obama:

“The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al-Qaeda.”

Really? That seems wrong in several ways.

1. If the welcome killing of one man is “our most significant achievement to date” in fighting these monsters, we’re in terrible shape considering that we’ve sacrificed thousands of brave men and women and trillions of dollars in the fight.  On that scoreboard, it  doesn’t look like we’re ahead.

2. Chants of “USA!” aside, my own belief since Sept. 11, 2001 has been that we lost the War on Terror that day. Before we even knew the battle was on, we were wounded and diminished. Except for the uprising on Flight 93, our enemies did everything they wanted to do that day and we were powerless to stop any of it.

We may have “won” some partial victories since that day. We may well be better at preventing massive attacks like bin Laden engineered, or it just may be that the terrorists no longer have the means and material to launch that kind of attack. But can we say we are more united, more certain of our purpose, more loved or respected around the world?

3. I  don’t think America has ever recovered from that horrible day.I know that I personally have not. Without wanting to at all, I’ve divided national and personal history into Before the Attacks and After the Attacks. Comparing the two periods, I have to conclude that life After the Attacks is worse in a number of ways.

By this I don’t mean the now-standard conspiracy chat about  civil liberties allegedly stolen by over-zealous Bushaucrats. I still have all the civil liberties I had on Sept. 10, 2001. But I think many, perhaps most Americans who were alive that day live with a lingering sadness, a permanent insecurity, and an ineradicable regret. I have as much freedom now as I did then; I just don’t enjoy it as much. Things seem far more complicated, more ambiguous.  Some kind of innocence seems gone. The easy answers don’t answer the way they did.

4. I think retaliation against the perpetrators of Sept. 11 was not only right but unavoidable, but that retaliation could and should have been pursued without ever venturing into Iraq, a debacle which has been ruinous for America. Even now, with so many good  lives and so much treasure gone, we have no certain victory there.

Of course I still hope to see something better emerge from all the bloodshed–who does not?– but I  would not be surprised to see Iraq dissolve into civil war or return to a thugocracy like Sadaam’s. If you read a book like Bing West’s  No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah, it’s heartbreaking to think of all the pain and horror our soldiers suffered in a place we should never have sent them.

5. And, as we see from the Lurch into Libya, there is no evidence that we have learned the folly of imposing democracy at the point of a gun on places that lack the cultural and economic foundations needed for democracy. After Quadafy, what happens in Libya? Have we taken sides in a civil war? Who the hell are these “rebels?” And will we now take up arms against all governments who oppress their people?  Syria? Burma? China? That seems to be the desire of those who see America as Green Lantern.

6. As others have pointed out, because of the initial misconception inherent in “the war on terror”–which is a war on a tactic–there can never be a “Victory over Terror Day,” because the tactic of terrorism will always be available to anyone with a fiendish ideology and a weapon. The Allies could wage and win a war against Hitler and his Nazis, but we  can never enjoy the moment of  victory, and  the sense of catharsis and deliverance,  that Americans earned in 1945.

And even if we did, nothing can ever bring back the young Americans who died in the avoidable tragedy of Iraq. As President Reagan so beautifully said of the men who died on D-Day, “they gave all their tomorrows that we might have today.” The boys of Iraq also gave all their tomorrows, but it’s much harder to see what lasting good came from their sacrifice.

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