WASHINGTON -- Osama bin Laden's death doesn’t end the post-9/11 era, but it does provide an occasion to look back at everything that’s happened since the attacks nearly 10 years ago and reassess the costs.
It’s been a long, grueling and enormously expensive time for this country, a time of endless war and massive fortification, of borrowed money and of missed opportunities.
There’s the human toll. More than twice as many Americans -- over 6,000 -- have now died in the two wars that followed 9/11 than did in the original attacks, along with more than 100,000 Iraqis and Afghans. Over three million Iraqis and 400,000 Afghans remain displaced. Several hundred thousand U.S. soldiers suffer from long-term war-related injuries and health problems, with more than 200,000 diagnosed with traumatic brain injury alone.
And there’s the extraordinary financial toll. Indeed, even as Washington officials panic about the growing deficit, much of the problem can be traced back to 9/11 -- not to the attack itself, but to the response, and particularly to the decision to go to war in Iraq.
The actual 9/11 attacks produced insured losses of about $40 billion and delivered a temporary blow to the economy. But that was just the very beginning of the financial hemorrhage.
Harvard scholar Linda Bilmes and Nobel-Prize winning Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz now estimate that the two post-9/11 wars will end up costing taxpayers somewhere between $4 trillion and $6 trillion. That includes not only money already appropriated for the military campaigns ($1.3 trillion at last count), but also the immense cost of long-term health care for returning soldiers, and such things as interest payments on all the extra borrowed money and the increased volatility of oil prices since the invasion of Iraq.
"One of the main reasons that our national debt has increased so much over this past decade is because of the spending on the wars and the military buildup,” Bilmes told The Huffington Post. “All of that money has been borrowed.”
The post-9/11 era is defined by a series of choices, the biggest and most expensive of which was President George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq. When it comes to the $4-6 trillion estimate, “I think between two thirds and three quarters of it is Iraq," Bilmes said.
"I ask myself, would the economy be so weak, would we still be bogged down in Afghanistan, would oil prices be where they are, would we have lost so much blood and treasure, would the national debt be as high as it is, if we had not made the decision to go into Iraq? “ Bilmes said. “I think the answer is 'no' to all those questions.”
“We could have gone down a different path,” said Neta Crawford, a Boston University political scientist and one of over a dozen scholars embarked on a cross-disciplinary assessment of the costs of the post-9/11 era. Their report is due in late June.
Her group's cost estimate promises to be even higher than that of Bilmes and Stiglitz. “Many of the things that we thought we knew about the cost of this war have actually been uncounted,” Crawford said.
The new assessment will include, among other things, domestic security spending. "We spent on homeland security at least a few hundred billion dollars more than we otherwise would have spent," said Anita Dancs, who teaches economics at Western New England College and is in charge of that section of the study.
Dancs cites "blank check syndrome" for much of the increase. "Over the course of the decade, an enormous amount of money was just thrown at homeland security without really thinking through how necessary it was," she said.
Much of the spending was aimed specifically at preventing or responding to acts of terror -- which, Dancs noted, is not the most imminent threat facing most American communities. "They’re much more likely to have to deal with a tornado, a hurricane, some sort of man-made or natural disaster, than they are a terrorist attack," Dancs said.
"There is an opportunity cost to putting so much energy and money into this direction of homeland security," she said. "I believe it has come at the cost of neglect to the common everyday occurrences."
In fact, Dancs argues that the famously botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina was due in part to the fact that the Bush administration was "so narrowly focused on the less likely terrorist threat." That and the fact that "a lot of the Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard and reservists were fighting in Iraq."
The cost of the extraordinary expansion of the nation’s intelligence and surveillance apparatus is almost impossible to assess. Our top-secret world, in the words of Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and William R. Arkin, “has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.”
Yet a 2002 Congressional Research Service report did anticipate the effects of post-9/11 spending with great accuracy: "Large amounts of resources are and will be committed to making production, distribution, finance, and communication more secure in the United States," the report said. "Resources that could have been used to enhance the productive capacity of the country will now be used for security. Since it will take more labor and capital to produce a largely unchanged amount of goods and services, this will result in a slower rate of growth in national productivity, a price that will be borne by every American in the form of a slower rate of growth of per capita real income."
The staggering sums that went to the war effort -- which could have had a widely-felt stimulative effect on the economy -- ended up enriching big contractors, leaving behind a smaller, less ready and more beaten-up armed forces.
The money could have gone elsewhere. For starters, the country might not have spent it at all -- in which case we wouldn't be in nearly as much debt. And for comparison purposes, according to estimates by Oxfam, the international relief organization, a fraction of the money spent on wars and security ($151 billion a year) could end extreme poverty worldwide; a small fraction ($16 billion a year) could provide schooling for the 72 million children in poor countries who are missing out on primary education, and a tiny fraction ($5 billion a year) could provide improved medical care to save the lives of about 2 million mothers and children.
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for The Huffington Post. You can send him an email, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get email alerts when he writes.