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Raymond Barrett Headshot

The War on Terror Is Over...But Osama Bin Laden Won.

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High in the mountains of Afghanistan many moons before 9/11, Osama Bin Laden told the British journalist Robert Fisk exactly what he sought to achieve through his murderous crusade against Uncle Sam.

"I pray to God that he will permit us to turn the United States into a shadow of itself," he said.

A somewhat intangible objective, no doubt, especially when compared with his other ambitions, such as deposing the ruling Al-Saud family in his Arabian homeland or imposing his Salafist interpretation of Islam on the Greater Middle East.

With the al-Qaeda leader dead, the "War on Terror" morphed into a global "drone war", and home-grown terrorism now the dominant US national security threat, history can begin to evaluate Bin Laden and his more esoteric aims. Thus, when it comes to the United States, were his prayers answered? Did he enjoy a measure of success in his quest to debase the nation?

To conduct such an analysis, some benchmarks are needed. To many Americans, three pursuits best embody the nation: prosperity, liberty and justice. For it is through the abundance of these things that successive American leaders have positioned the country as a "shining city on a hill" to which the world turns for inspiration.

From a financial standpoint, there is no arguing that the nation ended up in a less prosperous state -- downgraded and in debt -- as it careered down the rabbit-hole looking for "the sheikh". As the Pentagon spent years flying pallets of cash into Iraq, thousands of miles from Abbottabad, the healthy budget surplus of the Clinton years metastasized into a cancerous 16-trillion dollar deficit.

When it comes to liberty and justice, the outrages of the junior Bush administration in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks are well-documented: the illegal invasion of Iraq; the "extraordinary rendition" of suspects to countries where torture is prevalent; "black prisons" where "enemy combatants" received "enhanced interrogation" from CIA personnel. The Constitution Project's recent 500-page report cataloguing these abuses is a sobering compendium highlighting just how much the US corrupted itself fighting the War on Terror.

But surely the Bush years were merely an aberration, I hear you say. Wouldn't the election of President Obama have corrected these wrongs and set the US back on the road to redemption? Guantanamo Bay would close, the Muslim world would be re-engaged with and withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan would bring absolution from the trespasses of the Bush administration.

If only it were so easy; Bin Laden still casts shadows from beyond the grave. Lingering security fears have convinced politicians, both Democrats and Republicans, that American ideals must be compromised once the bugbear of terrorism raises its head.

Guantanamo Bay remains open, housing prisoners detained for over a decade without trial in a lack of due process that is an affront to the principles upon which the nation was founded. And while the president has once again called for its close, some lawmakers have called for expanding "enemy combatant" status to US citizens such as the surviving Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Overseas, drone strikes on villages in Pakistan that kill women and children are now accepted with mere shrugs of indifference, even by the vast majority of Democrats who cried rivers over the killings of innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan by nefarious military contractors and rogue military units. It's different, I suppose, when it's your guy pulling the trigger.

And in the case the case of al-Qaeda "propagandist" Anwar al-Awlaki, not only are American citizens liable for extrajudicial execution in Yemen via drone strikes, the White House also played judge, jury and executioner with his 16-year old US-born son.

Thus, despite tough competition, the most insidious diminution of those American ideals of liberty and justice may have occurred through a precedent set by the current administration. Many of the Bush administration outrages were conducted behind closed doors, with little attempt to go beyond a brutish defense of the ends justifying the means. But this administration has justified its killing of a US citizen through a tortuous legal doublespeak that would leave even Orwell aghast.

Committing atrocities is one thing, but institutionalizing them with the full imprimatur of the US government is another, and a more definitive way to ensure Bin Laden enjoys a posthumous victory. In the most recent State of the Union address, there was little mention of the War on Terror and the president said that as a result of various initiatives the al-Qaeda network was now but a "shadow of its former self."

But given the depths the US has sunk to in order to achieve this goal, perhaps Bin Laden is not alone in the shadows.