Osama's Legacy: American Drift

Osama bin Laden proved to our adversaries that, when we are frightened, we lose our way. Until we find our way back, standing in the street high-fiving his death may feel good, but our circumstances are little changed.

NEW YORK -- It takes no degree in psychology to understand why Americans flocked to the obvious gathering places -- Ground Zero, the White House -- celebrating news of Osama's demise. A decade ago we watched people we knew or might have known hurtle to their deaths from a landmark building. Someone had to pay.

The trouble is that we ourselves paid as a nation. And we have kept paying even as the price has climbed to impossible heights, via disastrous choices made in anger and vengeance more than reason and enlightened self-interest. We rushed into Afghanistan without the will to remake it. We embarked on an unnecessary war in Iraq, chasing the phantom of our national fears. We squandered our treasure on ill-conceived military misadventures just as we needed it most here at home, to rebuild our schools and invest in productive industries that might put people back to work.

Last night, on city streets in New York and in Washington, the jubilant crowds chanted and sang as if we had won some sort of sporting event, the championship banner hung in a final statement of achievement. A chorus spoke of closure and justice and healing. But we have won nothing -- even as one rightly hopes that Osama's death will weaken al Qaeda's capacity to sow terror. We completed no mission of decisive national import. Real victory will continue to elude us until we focus on rebuilding our own country, recovering from the self-inflicted wounds that have resulted from taking Osama's bait.

The attack inflicted by bin Laden's terrorist organization on September 11, 2001 came with its own unique opportunity. Here was an invitation to reckon with the limits of military strength as a vessel of foreign policy. Here was a moment that suddenly made the world sympathetic to the American situation. But the tactical brilliance of the al Qaeda strike went beyond the terrifying images that filled our television screens, provoking that sickening feeling of vulnerability combined with rage over murder: It was as if Osama and his minions placed a bet on our national character, reckoning that such an attack would tap into the hot center of the American mindset, prompting a response that would be damaging to our long-term interests. We would react in anger and fear, and hurt ourselves in the process.

Survey the last decade and it is hard to escape the conclusion that this is precisely what unfolded. Inside the prisons at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, we wasted international support and made ourselves something close to a pariah. When a hurricane wrecked New Orleans, we seemed to lack the resources to provide relief. As another American metropolis, Detroit, slipped inexorably toward the status of a failed city, we did little to arrest the decline. From California to New Jersey, we have accepted dilapidated classrooms, crumbling roads and elevated rates of unemployment as unalterable facts of contemporary life, as if we are powerless to invest in something better.

In the middle of every policy debate lies the sentiment that the country is broke and has no other option but diminished expectations. We did not fall into debt because of Osama bin Laden. A terrible recession layered atop tax cuts for wealthy Americans mostly brought us here. But the trillions we have spent in Iraq and Afghanistan exacerbated our debt troubles, and these campaigns have concentrated our focus on military entanglements, leaving little attention for the crisis at home.

And now, just as we should be having a sustained discussion about how to invest in a more bountiful future and repair the communities we have neglected, we are instead engaged in a festival of political pandering ostensibly about cutting the deficit. Cities are slashing support for public transportation. The federal government is trimming an inadequate social safety net. Congressional Republicans are threatening to vote against lifting the debt ceiling -- a step that courts panic in global financial markets -- unless they gain a blessing for another round of budget cuts that will intensify harm for the most vulnerable people. We never did find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but we have one right here in our midst, loaded and set to detonate inside the Congress through this mindless debate.

Osama bin Laden is gone, and that is better than the alternative. But the celebration over his death feels misplaced. The remnants of his most successful strike on American soil remain intact through the collective sense of powerlessness that frames the conversation. He has proven to our adversaries that, when we are frightened, we lose our way. Until we find our way back, standing in the street, high-fiving his death may feel good, but our circumstances are little changed.

Before You Go