05/14/2011 11:05 am ET Updated Jul 14, 2011

Another 9/11? Call 911

From Rice to Rove, former Bush administration officials were all over the airways this past weekend, touting their regime's choice of war -- strategically, tactically, semantically -- as a means of avenging the deaths of almost 3,000 Americans and foreign nationals in the 9/11 attacks. And, incredibly, as a method to locate and bring to justice Osama bin Laden.

But bin Laden was a criminal. He presided over an unlawful syndicate, not the armed forces of a recognized state. Motivated by an extremist ideology, to be sure, his killing spree of September 11, 2001 was, at bottom, the work of a mass murderer -- a killer who from the beginning should have been treated and tracked as a criminal.

For bin Laden and others of his ilk, terrorism is simply a tool, a tactic.

Fortunately, law enforcement professionals assigned to the case grasped this fundamental truth. They treated the hunt for bin Laden as a police mission and, because they did, the man is no longer a threat.

Examples of the "criminal justice" approach? For starters, bin Laden was on the FBI's Most Wanted List, a distinction earned well before 9/11 for, among other offenses, murdering Americans abroad. His cohorts on the list at the time of his death included other killers, racketeers, money launderers, drug dealers, kidnappers, rapists, bank robbers, those wanted for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, or confinement (i.e., escapees), and an old-school organized crime figure whose 19 counts of murder date back to the early seventies. Police work.

Further, bin Laden's whereabouts was established by dogged detective work. Even as it appeared we'd never nab the country's most violent criminal, the CIA, FBI, and military and civilian law enforcement personnel worked their "cold case" with diligence -- despite years of interference caused by pointless, irksome politics. Police work.

As with so many other criminal cases, the suspect's precise location was detected through a process that involved interrogation, witness interviews, the cultivation of snitches, telephone tips, deductive reasoning, and surveillance. Police work.

And the murderer was taken down by the tactical equivalent of a practiced, superbly competent and courageous "SWAT" team, whose members included a K-9. Police work.

On a grander-than-usual scale, bin Laden's apprehension was the result of good, old-fashioned police work.

Yet, thanks to the graphic horrors of 9/11, the resulting fears of the American people, and the impulsiveness and hubris of a president, we went to war. Twice.

Given the circumstances, the first war was at least justifiable. The Taliban ruled Afghanistan. It had partnered with al-Qaeda, and it used the country as a recruiting and training ground for virulent anti-American activities. More to the point, U.S. intelligence sources had reason to believe that heavily armed Taliban forces were helping bin Laden hide out in the mountains of Tora Bora, near the border of Pakistan. Surely, the fog of war, the overwhelming presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan would facilitate his capture.

Bush's second war was a shock-and-awe invasion of a country that neither produced nor harbored the criminal responsible for the heinous crimes of 9/11. The administration knew that Iraq was not sheltering bin Laden. But the clock was ticking. The failure to quickly detect and apprehend the man responsible for the atrocities of 9/11 gave lie to the president's promise to get bin Laden, "dead or alive." He needed someone to attack.

The invasion and occupation of Iraq was (and continues to be) an enormously expensive undertaking, costing us dearly in lives, dollars, and America's standing in the global conversation. And it was a huge distraction from the manhunt to catch bin Laden.

Everyone agrees, we've not seen the last terrorist act on U.S. soil, or against American military personnel or civilians in other parts of the world. But the capture of Osama bin Laden argues elegantly against high-priced, regime-changing, nation-building, mission-creeping war, and its inevitable collateral damage, in order to go after individuals who are, at bottom, criminals.

(Imagine the outcome of the May 2 raid in Abbottabad had we used the safer military strategy of bombing the compound. Everything of value, bin Laden's body, his DNA, the trove of intelligence would have been atomized. It's doubtful we would have learned of bin Laden's uninterrupted leadership of al-Qaeda, of his determination to carry out future assaults on American soil: aspiring to bigger body counts, targeting small cities as well as large, hitting trains, attacking on significant dates like holidays and anniversaries of 9/11.)

Lots of questions remain about how to pursue an international criminal. They're laden with issues of efficacy, morality, constitutionality. Questions about joint military and civilian operations; new and continuing challenges to global intelligence gathering and sharing; cultivation of informants in hostile territory, especially among potential sources with unfamiliar religions, cultures, languages and loyalties; enhanced methods of interrogation, especially waterboarding; military tribunals vs. civilian courts; Guantanamo Bay vs. Colorado's federal Supermax penitentiary; advance notice (or calculated absence thereof) of our intended hot pursuit of criminal targets in allied lands. How we answer these questions will further define us as a nation.

But one thing is plain. Had we from the start used a fundamentally criminal justice/police model of tracking down a "high value" target like Osama bin Laden, we would have avoided the most expensive manhunt in the history of the world.

And, I believe, we would have caught our man years ago.