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After bin Laden

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Osama bin Laden is gone, yet controversy will rage for a long while. There are many questions, and complete answers are not likely to be forthcoming.

Was the shooting necessary, or could bin Laden have been taken alive? What exactly were the orders given to the Navy SEALs? The operation appears to have been a military mission rather than a law-enforcement mission, with the apparent objective of killing him, not taking him alive. No surprise there. The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, wrongly considers terrorism against American civilians warfare rather than criminal activity. That enables it to claim extraordinary powers that couldn’t otherwise be claimed in a normal law-enforcement context. But what grounds are there for regarding terrorism as anything but criminal activity? The 9/11 attacks were committed by a decentralized nonstate organization. That’s not what we typically have in mind when we think of war.

Why was bin Laden given a burial at sea? The administration says that was proper under Islamic law but that claim seems shaky. At any rate, getting rid of the body will fuel suspicions about what really happened in the Abbottabad house.

Why won’t the administration release the photos of the body? Sure, they would be inflammatory, but so was the killing itself. Once again, the American people are asked simply to accept the government’s word, but that’s not good enough. The man the SEALs killed was surely bin Laden, but that doesn’t justify the U.S. government’s treating the American people like children. Show us the evidence, and give us a full accounting. Government activity should be under continuous scrutiny, especially in its conduct in foreign matters. That is why WikiLeaks is so valuable.

In the current American climate one risks being misunderstood if he even wonders whether the U.S. government should have hunted and killed bin Laden. Who wants to be reminded how many innocent lives and how much money the operation cost? To be sure, there was nothing admirable about the man. He inspired and perhaps ordered the spilling of innocent blood even before 9/11, and the theocratic society he aspired to build would repulse any libertarian. But U.S. regimes have been killing and torturing innocents, or supporting forces that have done so, around the world for generations. Since 9/11 their wars have killed hundreds of thousands, perhaps more than a million, innocents in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and probably elsewhere. That doesn’t justify or excuse bin Laden’s role, whatever it might have been, in the 9/11 or other terrorist attacks, but it does diminish the justice of the U.S. action. If Osama bin Laden deserved to die, it doesn’t follow that Barack Obama was morally (not to mention legally) qualified to order him killed.

This point is driven home by Obama’s attempt on the life of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen and Muslim cleric who lives in Yemen. The U.S. government says al-Awlaki is implicated in terrorism, such as the shootings at Fort Hood, but he has not been indicted, charged, or tried. Instead, the Obama administration outrageously claims the authority to assassinate him (and by implication anyone else it unilaterally declares to be a terrorist) without due process, which it tried to do a couple of days after the bin Laden hit.

Of course to get bin Laden, the SEALs had to enter Pakistan, introducing yet another complication. U.S. forces have routinely attacked Pakistan with aerial drones, killing innocents as well as “militants,” to the point that the Pakistani government is threatening to cease cooperating in the so-called war on terror. The bin Laden operation has only aggravated this conflict. If Pakistan tells Obama to go away, will he add that country to the list of countries against which the United States is overtly at war?

Finally, there’s the question of torture. The killing of bin Laden has emboldened former Bush officials and defenders to claim that “enhanced interrogation” — a euphemism for “torture” — works because information leading to the operation was gained by such interrogation at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Thus, torture apologists imply, the entire system of CIA “black site prisons” and “extraordinary rendition” (in which suspects are sent to other countries to be tortured) was justified.

That claim is by no means unanimously accepted; Sen. John McCain, for one, says it is untrue. But it’s all beside the point. While there are ample prudential reasons for eschewing torture — for example, the information would tend to be unreliable, since subjects are known to admit to anything while in pain or fear for their lives — the moral case is even more formidable. How bizarre to hear people who ordinarily admonish that the “end doesn’t justify the means” now say that the bin Laden killing vindicates torture? Note also that those who argue that torture is a necessary weapon for extreme “ticking time bomb” scenarios enthusiastically approve of its use in a situation that did not fall into that category. The lesson: even one who accepts the propriety of torture for extreme scenarios shouldn’t trust the government with such a dangerous power.

Truth be told, the hunt for bin Laden was always a sideshow. George W. Bush even said at one point that he wasn’t much concerned with finding him. Still, bin Laden played a useful role for the U.S. foreign-policy elite: He was still out there plotting, necessitating a vigilant “war on terror.” And if he were eventually caught and killed, whoever was occupying the White House would score a point with the American electorate.

What will change?

Now it has been done. What’s next? Don’t look for any big change. American foreign policy was formulated long before al-Qaeda came into being, and its decapitation (if that’s what it is) won’t make much difference. Not that there won’t be surface changes. President Obama may well get the remaining troops out of Iraq as required by the agreement Bush signed with the Iranian-backed government the U.S. military helped install. (Although the State Department may succeed in maintaining a private army there.) And Obama made a big show of beginning to draw down the 100,000-troop force in Afghanistan, though the military brass is unhappy. The American people are sick of that war (to the extent they are paying attention), and Obama is up for reelection next year. He’d probably like to be rid of the Afghan albatross if he can do it in a way that won’t let the Republicans portray him as a wimp. The bin Laden hit helps him out in that regard.

But assuming those things happen, what has really changed? Will the U.S. government have renounced its global role? Hardly. It will still be bombing Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, and other countries, and it continues to claim the authority to intervene anywhere, with or without the blessing of Congress, NATO, or the UN Security Council. (Who cares what the American people think?)

So it’s imperative that we not be fooled by appearances. The policymakers will not be using bin Laden’s death as grounds to dismantle the thousand U.S. military installations around the world, to stop supporting torture-loving dictators when they serve “American interests,” to end the violations of Americans’ civil liberties, or to defund the trillion-dollar-plus national security state. That gravy train, which gives prestige to “statesmen,” shapes the global order American-style, and lines the pockets of contractors, is not going to end merely because one man was shot by Navy SEALs.

It took no more than a few nanoseconds after the killing of bin Laden for the government to inform us that this is no time to let down our guard. The Bush Perpetual Motion Machine is intact. Every move to counter terrorists creates its own grounds for further moves. For every terrorist killed, ten more arise. (Gen. Stanley McChrystal said that.) Demand creates its own supply. It’s an empire builder’s dream come true. The 9/11 attacks were monstrous crimes, but they did not come out of the blue.

If we Americans are to free ourselves of the burdens of empire, we have to go to the root. Government must not be allowed the role of shaping the world to the policymakers’ liking. Even if their goals were entirely wholesome — individual liberty and free markets — a superpower global policeman would be impotent to achieve them in behalf of the world’s people. Government is a blunt instrument that works in top-down fashion. Freedom is something that must bubble up from the grassroots if it is to be genuine and enduring. Oppressed populations will not have decent nations built by outsiders. They will have to make their own nations decent.

Anyway, having wholesome goals is not enough. The policy-makers would also have to know what they are doing. Yet the complexity of any society puts the relevant knowledge beyond the reach of even the brainiest social engineers. If they are incapable of planning the domestic economy, they certainly will not be able to reconstruct a foreign society.

Of course, it is unrealistic to assume the policymakers have wholesome goals. Behind the pretty window dressing we consistently find an agenda that serves special political and economic interests. American foreign policy has long been the tool for arranging the world in just such a way as to ensure power and wealth for the right people. Just a coincidence? Not likely.

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.