While most of America is celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden, it’s worth giving credit where credit is due: he didn’t just nurse a quixotic ambition — to attack the US economy — but he also figured out how it could be done and succeeded. Perhaps he was inspired by the AIDS virus and realized that, just like triggering a deadly auto-immune reaction, the only way to attack America was to trick the US government into conducting and expanding the attack itself.
In a clear-eyed analysis of the cost of the massive convulsion called a global war on terrorism, the National Journal makes one mistake — the headline: “The Cost of bin Laden: $3 Trillion Over 15 Years.”
The real cost of al Qaeda’s attacks on US embassies, the USS Cole, New York and Washington DC was a few billion dollars. Beyond that, the additional cost was the cost of America’s overreaction.
If bin Laden and his cohorts had carefully studied the synergy through which American fearfulness, the mass media, commercial interests and political opportunism so easily combine to fuel national hysteria, they would have realized that all they needed to do was engineer a sufficiently potent catalyst (9/11), following which virtually no further effort would be required. Indeed, al Qaeda’s method of “attack” has now evolved to the point where it can attack America simply with ideas about the possibility of an attack.
It has harnessed the counterpart of asymmetric warfare which is asymmetric fear — a state of trauma in which smaller and smaller threats provoke more and more extreme reactions.
If a day ever comes when an America president can boldly declare that al Qaeda has been defeated, have little doubt that the US taxpayer will still be required to incur the massive cost of protecting this country from al Qaeda redux — an organization that has no name and in fact does not exist but lurks in the unmappable territory of the future, just waiting to pounce.
The most expensive public enemy in American history died Sunday from two bullets.
As we mark Osama bin Laden’s death, what’s striking is how much he cost our nation—and how little we’ve gained from our fight against him. By conservative estimates, bin Laden cost the United States at least $3 trillion over the past 15 years, counting the disruptions he wrought on the domestic economy, the wars and heightened security triggered by the terrorist attacks he engineered, and the direct efforts to hunt him down.
What do we have to show for that tab? Two wars that continue to occupy 150,000 troops and tie up a quarter of our defense budget; a bloated homeland-security apparatus that has at times pushed the bounds of civil liberty; soaring oil prices partially attributable to the global war on bin Laden’s terrorist network; and a chunk of our mounting national debt, which threatens to hobble the economy unless lawmakers compromise on an unprecedented deficit-reduction deal.
All of that has not given us, at least not yet, anything close to the social or economic advancements produced by the battles against America’s costliest past enemies. Defeating the Confederate army brought the end of slavery and a wave of standardization—in railroad gauges and shoe sizes, for example—that paved the way for a truly national economy. Vanquishing Adolf Hitler ended the Great Depression and ushered in a period of booming prosperity and hegemony. Even the massive military escalation that marked the Cold War standoff against Joseph Stalin and his Russian successors produced landmark technological breakthroughs that revolutionized the economy.
Perhaps the biggest economic silver lining from our bin Laden spending, if there is one, is the accelerated development of unmanned aircraft. That’s our $3 trillion windfall, so far: Predator drones.