Osama Bin Laden's America
Niger, 9/11, and Apocalyptic Humiliation
By Tom Engelhardt
Honestly, if there's an afterlife, then the soul of Osama bin Laden, whose body was consigned to the waves by the U.S. Navy back in 2011, must be swimming happily with the dolphins and sharks. At the cost of the sort of spare change that Donald Trump recently offered aides and former campaign officials for their legal troubles in the Russia investigation (on which he's unlikely to deliver) -- a mere $400,000 to $500,000 -- bin Laden managed to launch the American war on terror. He did so with little but a clever game plan, a few fanatical followers, and a remarkably intuitive sense of how this country works.
He had those 19 mostly Saudi hijackers, a scattering of supporters elsewhere in the world, and the "training camps" in Afghanistan, but his was a ragged and understaffed movement. And keep in mind that his sworn enemy was the country that then prided itself on being the last superpower, the final winner of the imperial sweepstakes that had gone on for five centuries until, in 1991, the Soviet Union imploded.
The question was: With such limited resources, what kind of self-destructive behavior could he goad a triumphalist Washington into? The key would be what might be called apocalyptic humiliation.
Looking back, 16 years later, it's extraordinary how September 11, 2001, would set the pattern for everything that followed. Each further goading act, from Afghanistan to Libya, San Bernardino to Orlando, Iraq to Niger, each further humiliation would trigger yet more of the same behavior in Washington. After all, so many people and institutions -- above all, the U.S. military and the rest of the national security state -- came to have a vested interest in Osama bin Laden's version of our world.
Grim as the 9/11 attacks were, with nearly 3,000 dead civilians, they would be but the start of bin Laden's "success," which has, in truth, never ended. The phrase of that moment -- that 9/11 had "changed everything" -- proved far more devastatingly accurate than we Americans imagined at the time. Among other things, it transformed the country in essential ways.
After all, Osama bin Laden managed to involve the United States in 16 years of fruitless wars, most now "generational" conflicts with no end in sight, which would only encourage the creation and spread of terror groups, the disintegration of order across significant parts of the planet, and the displacement of whole populations in staggering numbers. At the same time, he helped turn twenty-first-century Washington into a war machine of the first order that ate the rest of the government for lunch. He gave the national security state the means -- the excuse, if you will -- to rise to a kind of power, prominence, and funding that might otherwise have been inconceivable. In the process -- undoubtedly fulfilling his wildest dreams -- he helped speed up the decline of the very country that, since the Cold War ended, had been plugging itself as the greatest ever.
In other words, he may truly be the (malign) genius of our age. He created a terrorist version of call and response that still rules Donald Trump's Washington in which the rubblized generals of America's rubblized wars on an increasingly rubblized planet now reign supreme. In other words, The Donald, Defense Secretary James "Mad Dog" Mattis, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster were Osama bin Laden's grim gift to the rest of us. Thanks to him, literally trillions of taxpayer dollars would go down the tubes in remarkably pointless wars and "reconstruction" scams abroad that now threaten to feed on each other to something like the end of (American) time.
Of course, he had a little luck in the process. As a start, no one, not even the 9/11 plotters themselves, could have imagined that those towers in Manhattan would collapse before the already omnipresent cameras of the age in a way that would create such classically apocalyptic imagery. As scholar Paul Boyer once argued, in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Americans never stopped dreaming of a nuclear attack on this country. Our pop culture was filled with such imagery, such nightmares. On that September day, many Americans suddenly felt as if something like it had finally happened. It wasn't happenstance that, within 24 hours, the area of downtown Manhattan where the shards of those towers lay would be dubbed "Ground Zero," a term previously reserved for the spot where a nuclear explosion had taken place, or that Tom Brokaw, anchoring NBC's non-stop news coverage, would claim that it was "like a nuclear winter in lower Manhattan."
The sense of being sneak-attacked on an apocalyptic scale -- hence the "new Pearl Harbor" and "Day of Infamy" headlines -- proved overwhelming as the scenes of those towers falling in a near mushroom cloud of smoke and ash were endlessly replayed. Of course, no such apocalyptic attack had occurred. The weapons at hand weren't even bombs or missiles, but our own airplanes filled with passengers. And yes, it was a horror, but not the horror Americans generally took it for. And yet, 16 years later, it's still impossible to put 9/11 in any kind of reasonable context or perspective in this country, even after we've helped to rubblize major cities across the Middle East -- most recently the Syrian city of Raqqa -- and so aided in creating landscapes far more apocalyptic looking than 9/11 ever was.
As I wrote long ago, 9/11 "was not a nuclear attack. It was not apocalyptic. The cloud of smoke where the towers stood was no mushroom cloud. It was not potentially civilization ending. It did not endanger the existence of our country -- or even of New York City. Spectacular as it looked and staggering as the casualty figures were, the operation was hardly more technologically advanced than the failed attack on a single tower of the World Trade Center in 1993 by Islamists using a rented Ryder truck packed with explosives."
On the other hand, imagine where we'd be if Osama bin Laden had had just a little more luck that day; imagine if the fourth hijacked plane, the one that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, had actually reached its target in Washington and wiped out, say, the Capitol or the White House.
Bin Laden certainly chose his symbols of American power well -- financial (the World Trade Center), military (the Pentagon), and political (some target in Washington) -- in order to make the government and people of the self-proclaimed most exceptional nation on Earth feel the deepest possible sense of humiliation.
Short of wiping out the White House, bin Laden could hardly have hit a more American nerve or created a stronger sense that the country which felt it had everything was now left with nothing at all.