The Devil likely died happy

He's dead, perhaps learning whether his cruel version of deity was at all accurate, and Americans have erupted in patriotic joy. But in so many ways, Osama bin Laden died the victor, the CBC's Neil Macdonald says.

He’s dead, perhaps learning whether his cruel version of deity was at all accurate, and Americans have erupted in patriotic joy.

But in so many ways, Osama bin Laden died the victor.

Not that he ever came close to establishing some medieval Islamic caliphate; one presumes even he wasn't deluded enough to believe that was truly possible. Nor was instituting Taliban-style Shariah law throughout the Muslim world. Extreme self-denial is never an easy sell, and too many Muslim men love their daughters, to name just two obstacles.

And only a simpleton would believe that stuff about destroying the decadent West.

But when bin Laden directed those airplanes at civilians ten years ago, he stole a lot more from this nation than the lives of 3,000 of her citizens.

He taught this country the consequences of operating an open, free society. Literally, he showed Americans the price of their liberty, how many of their principles they'd be willing to cast aside, and how quickly they would do it.

In other words, bin Laden showed American exceptionalists how unexceptionally they behave when faced with horrors most older nations have endured.

Beginning the day after the attacks, the United States became a meaner, more paranoid, more impoverished place.

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Even as President Bush reassured America's Muslims the U.S. was at war with terror, not with Islam, the nation's security organs and a great many of its citizens rounded on anything that even looked Muslim.

Thousands of people were locked up on flimsy pretexts and held for months without trial. Muslims learned to live with hard stares and suspicion. They were pulled off flights for the sin of having prayed publicly. Gradually, the Muslim world began to believe it was at war.

One can only imagine bin Laden's delight.

Congress, its knees jerking, passed the grotesquely named Patriot Act, removing civil liberties that took centuries to earn. America's famous dedication to individual rights shriveled in the sudden heat. National security, rather than life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness became the fundamental determinant.

Even now, "red" states are passing bills forbidding Shariah law, as though Arizona is on the cusp of a Muslim takeover.

Americans surrendered to ever more intrusive searches and probes at airports, carried out largely to create the illusion they were being protected.

WAR ON TERROR banners crawled constantly across the bottoms of cable TV screens, as a national media seized by a shameful fit of jingoism whipped up an already fear-stricken population. New plots were everywhere. Suddenly, the world absolutely teemed with terrorists who "hate us for being free." 


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President Bush, as rulers tend to do, seized the moment to expand his power, guided by Nixon's rule that it isn't illegal if the president does it.

Telecommunications companies were press-ganged into participating in illegal wiretap operations against American citizens.

Habeas corpus was ignored; the White House arrogated to itself the power to pronounce an American citizen an "enemy combatant," stripped of legal rights or due process. Government secrecy and classification of information expanded exponentially.

At the president's direction, White House lawyers concocted specious legal arguments allowing government agents to practise torture. They also began kidnapping people off foreign streets, sometimes the wrong people altogether, and shipping them off to regimes that didn't bother at all with legal opinions.

But bin Laden didn't just prod Americans into disregarding their own laws and principles when dealing with their real and supposed enemies; he goaded them into turning on each other.

Bush, on the night of the attacks, declared that there were only two choices: you were with America, meaning him, or with the terrorists. No middle ground.

"Liberal," in conservative circles, became synonymous with "soft on terror."

Those who opposed going to war in Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, were portrayed as unpatriotic haters of America.

The cleavage between right and left, red and blue, urban and rural, became deeper than at any time in modern history.

And then of course there was the cost. Setting aside the trillions expended in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have bin Laden to thank for a lot of today’s economic misery.

When the economy swooned after 9/11, policymakers responded with near-zero interest rates. Bush told the nation to go shopping, and everyone whipped out a credit card.

Insanely easy money flooded the market. And we know now what that led to: An economic crash, worldwide misery, and now, ten years later, out-of-control debt.

But it was the loss of America’s liberties, the sacrifice of individual freedom, and the breakdown of its rule of law that was bin Laden’s greatest triumph.

One presumes the great jihadist never took in A Man For All Seasons, but at a guess, he’d have cheered Will Roper, Sir Thomas More’s dull-witted son-in-law:

Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

So many trees were cut down here. To extend the metaphor, they are being slowly re-planted.

But the Devil almost certainly died happy.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.