In the wake of the United States government's killing of terror kingpin Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan the arguments and justifications have been flying fast and furious. This comes in the backdrop of September 11, 2001 when terrorists, acting on the orders of Bin Laden, killed about 3,000 innocent people in New York and Washington D.C. Now just about 10 years later the master terrorist was shot in a large compound in Pakistan in an upscale city and not in a cave.
But the killing has again ignited the notion of the imperial presidency and if President Barack Obama illegally ordered the assassination of Bin Laden and subverted the letter and law of the U.S. Constitution. Caught up in the emotion and jingoism of the moment the vast majority of Americans understandably support the president and no less an authority than the US Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the killing was lawful.
Still, the attacks of September 11 have changed the social and political life not only of New York City but America and the world for good. Bin Laden's successful terrorist attack has also left a festering wound in the American psyche that is still raw, jagged and exposed 10 years after the attack and his killing.
While the phenomenon of an imperial presidency -- a president that through various political and tactical maneuvers circumvents the US Constitution -- raises legitimate issues about presidential powers and their use and abuse, especially in a 21st century setting. Arguably, the events of 9/11 that launched "America's war on terror" under the presidency of George W. Bush has defined America's relationship with the Muslim and Arab worlds and how to deal with threats to the American homeland.
America, in the years following 9/11 veered steeply to the right as fear-mongering was elevated to national political levels and the public's anxiety about a possible recurrence of the tragic magnitude of that fateful day pushed American society to the verge of near collective schizophrenia. The political narrative of terror, terror threats, terrorists on our doorsteps helped entrench and re-shape the imperial presidency as Americans gave more and more power to the government than ever before culminating in the Patriot Act.
A traumatized nation said nary a word as the president and the government conducted so-called extraordinary renditions -- literally kidnapping real of perceived terror suspects and carting them off to proxy governments where they were tortured and brutalized to obtains information. The odious practice of water boarding and other methods of torture, sanitized as "enhanced interrogation techniques," became the rule rather than the exception. And domestically the American public tolerated the assault on civil liberties and rights under the governmental pretext that all that was done to "keep us safe form terrorists."
And as the American public looked the other way, preoccupied with daily survival and making ends meet, an imperial president using a misleading and false narrative took the nation to war against Iraq. The Bush Administration blamed the hanged Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for 9/11 by manufacturing a link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. The American people, frightened as they were at the time, acquiesced to a foolish and unnecessary war and believed the lies and half-truths peddled by the Administration that sold the public on the threat that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction that represented a threat to America. Of course, all that was a monumental tissue of lies and a calculated program of deceit based on the national fear and anxiety of the American people.
And President Barack Obama who promised change, and who was opposed to the war in both Iraq and Afghanistan, who grandly promised to close Guantanamo Bay detention camp among other things actually increased America's military footprint in Afghanistan. Nowadays former Bush Administration minions have elevated water-boarding -- that everyone agrees amounts to torture - to a badge of honor. The narrative of naked political fear-mongering and unreasonableness became so harsh that now ordinary Americans genuinely believe that trying a suspected terrorist in the United States -- where there are some of the most secure prisons in the world -- will somehow lead to some security catastrophe.
Several weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the United States of America was too afraid of its own legal system to try the alleged perpetrators of 9/11 in the very city where the slaughter took place. Nations such as Israel, India, and Pakistan have weathered the harrowing reality of terrorism for decades and dispensed justice through their court systems when trying accused terrorists. But despite the bravery of America's first-responders and service members American society and judicial system proved to be exceptionally fragile.
Republicans have long controlled the national narrative, and now, led by Tea Party wingnuts, most Americans bought into the anti-Muslim hysteria. Neoconservative, ultra-right wing Republicans in Congress put Islam itself on trial while their colleagues at the state level have attempted to treat practicing Islam as a terrorist act. Gone is President George Bush's rhetoric hailing Islam as a religion of peace; those who would be his successors proclaim one of the world's great religions a clear and present existential threat to the United States. The horrifying irony -- that no one has suffered from terrorism more than Muslims themselves -- seems lost to them.
But back to Osama Bin Laden. Her understood perfectly well that this tiny cadre of murderers would never be able to destroy America. Instead, he planned and schemed to destroy America from within first by delivering a vicious act to the heart of world finance and commerce and causing the largest possible casualties with the least amount of manpower. The end result was not just the death of innocent Americans but the luring of the world's only superpower into two unwinnable wars. These long and costly wars have drained America's treasury and ratcheted up anti-American sentiments globally.
Just as al-Qaeda could never defeat the United States militarily, the biggest threat to its ideology was never just American force but Muslims' own desire for self-determination. It is fitting that bin Laden's end should come now while the Arab Revolutionary Spring brings the reign of less imagined American-supported despots to a close. As they usher in their new fledgling democracies, we should consider what we've done with ours.
Bin Laden's demise will not be mourned by many outside of his criminal terror organization and sundry sympathizers but it does raise legitimate questions about the role of the imperial presidency. President Barack Obama has stated that he ordered the terror mastermind killed. And his Attorney General has defended his actions calling the killing legal and an act of "self defense." An assassination is "to murder (a usually prominent person) by a sudden and/or secret attack, often for political reasons." An additional definition is "the act of deliberately killing someone especially a public figure, usually for hire or for political reasons."
On the other hand many will argue that what the US president did was order a "targeted killing" which may be a modern, sanitized interpretation of an activity that is one of the oldest tools of power politics. Targeted killing is the intentional killing by a government or its agents of a civilian or "an unlawful combatant" -- a new non-military designation invented by the Bush Administration. But targeted killings are not new. During the Viet Nam War in response to Viet Cong assassinations the United States launched the Phoenix Program to assassinate Viet Cong leaders and sympathizers. The program was responsible for the killing of between 6,000 and 41,000 persons with an official "target" of 1,800 people per month.
While legal scholars debate the merits, rights and wrongs of the Osama Bin Laden killing the fact is that the world will be safer by his demise. Americans should never forget 9/11 and the innocent victims that a murderous twisted zealot caused. Nor must Americans believe that retribution no matter how it is justified will make the nation safer. What is needed in the aftermath of Osama Bin Laden's death is an active effort by all Americans to return to the days of sanity and reject the poisonous insanity that he spawned. That would be the best and fitting ending to a sordid saga.