The cost of fear: How Osama bin Laden helped drive America towards bankruptcy

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.

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10 thoughts on “The cost of fear: How Osama bin Laden helped drive America towards bankruptcy

  1. Christopher Hoare

    The price tag of America’s frailty is much greater if one counts the human lives lost and ruined. I use the word frailty deliberately because to other nation on earth would tie itself in such ridiculous knots over such a limited attack — everything since 9/11 has been self-inflicted injury.

    The word immature also comes to mind— especially when one considers the infantile celebrations over the murder (which is what non-judicial executions are) and the cowboy mentality displayed.

  2. Dean

    I think this is a fair theory of the behavior of average American, but average Americans were not driving the U.S. response. I think we’re looking for some other explanation for the massive over reaction. It was overreaction by design.

    Without getting too conspiratorial I think it all boils down to that old Japanese conundrum: when your only tool is a hammer – everything looks like a nail.

    After WWII the US had huge industrial capacity and a huge economy but it didn’t have anything at which to point the “arsenal of democracy.” There were a lot of good jobs in making munitions in World War II – and the proletariat didn’t mind the huge transfer of wealth from taxes into the military industrial complex as long as they were working. So how do you keep that momentum going after the war? The cold war and the space race and nuclear arms race came along to replace those demands for output.

    After the Soviet Union collapsed there were no more boogeymen to keep up the demand for enemies. We were running out of enemies at which to direct a command economy. Lucky for us – the mujaheddin we hired to harass the Russians in Afghanistan turned around the United States – because they too needed something to justify their existence after their reason to be dried up.

    We needed another enemy so we created one. The proles on the street – the ones producing all the fear – buy anything the think tanks sell us.

  3. Colm O' Toole

    Reading this article I was struck by one thing. When you think about it Bin Laden is probably the only figure in history who helped bring down 2 Empires.

    Granted the US Empire hasn’t collapsed yet… so I can’t make the claim with certainty but I know of no other person in the history books who fought 2 Empires in his life and clearly defeated 1 and looks like he at least came close to defeating another.

    Kinda makes you think.

    Also on another note news is just breaking that the US conducted a missile strike in Yemen targetting the American born Al Qaeda leader Alawki. Gave me another thought. Is anyone even counting how much nations the US is currently fighting now?

    Everyone knows about Iraq and Afghanistan. Then you have the “half-war” the US is involved in with Libya. Of course everyone been talking about the strikes inside Pakistan recently. Now the US dropping a few missiles in Yemen.

    Sure does appear that the situation is spiralling out of control. One has to wonder how long the Generals in the Pentagon can keep juggling this much balls in the air before something drops.

  4. delia ruhe

    No question about it: Usama was diabolically successful–and lucky. 9/11 was a perfect terrorist attack: like something out of an expensive SciFi movie, it was visually spectacular–just right for engaging the American mind. Precisely the right president was in place: who besides Dubya would have made all the necessary blunders, huge and expensive? Bin Laden must have thought he’d died and gone to heaven when Wall Street precipitated the Great Recession.

    So howcum he didn’t achieve his ultimate goal? I.e., getting Muslims around the world angry enough with US hegemony to join Usama’s jihad? I guess he didn’t know mainstream Muslims as well as he thought he did.

  5. MB

    Paul, very glad to see you back on line and on form again after your brief absence : in a sea of media frenzy since OBL’s death,which has produced a torrent of mediocrity and spin your article stands out.

    Thanks.

    MB.

  6. MB

    In the sea of inane articles about Osama, I think the following two stand out —

    A soldier, a philosopher, a Muslim academic and a Christian cleric debate the morality of the action :

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/06/osama-bin-laden-death-assassination

    And, Gary Young, who is — sometimes — a gratuitous provocateur, gets it pretty much right here I think, summing up what ‘the rest of the world’ thinks of USA and Obama :

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/may/03/bin-laden-death-us-patriot-reflex?INTCMP=SRCH

    and not forgetting …..

  7. dickerson3870

    RE: “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” – Woodward
    MY COMMENT: A superb analogy!

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