Osama bin Laden has not won, of course. Not really. In a conventional sense, his terrorist offensive against America has been an abysmal failure. Yet, in another sense, he has been spectacularly successful, and whether he is dead or alive, he continues to inflict pain on his adversary long after Sept. 11.
How can this be? you might reasonably ask. After all al-Qaeda is an operational shell of its former self, and Afghanistan has been pounded into rubble by our vaunted high-tech military. In addition, the mastermind behind the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks is now only a shadowy presence on grainy, smuggled videotapes. Consider, however, the changes bin Laden has wrought in this country; the United States is not the same place it was prior to last fall.
For one thing, there is a pervasive sense of foreboding that permeates American life. Americans are not exactly afraid, but they are exceedingly jumpy. A train derails in Florida, a boiler-room explodes in a New York building, a private plane crashes into an Italian skyscraper, and suddenly it's Sept. 11 once more; the stock market falters, television news obsesses, and we hold our collective breath. Terror, in short, has been implanted in the national psyche.
A lot of this can be traced to the Bush administration, which has a vested political interest in keeping the country on edge. Between Tom Ridge's color-coded alerts and John Ashcroft's doomsday scenarios, it's hard to avoid a mindset of eternal vigilance and endless global conflict. Lest we forget (and the Bushies won't let us forget), we are "at war" and will be, it appears, for the rest of our natural lives.
Every step the administration has taken since "9/11" has dragged us deeper into confrontation with the Third World, especially the one-fifth of humankind that is Muslim. The list of countries with an anti-terrorist American military presence is steadily growing: Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Yemen, the Philippines, Colombia. Terrorism has now replaced Communism as the paranoid fear du jour, and the fabled Military-Industrial Complex is back in business with a vengeance after a decade-long hiatus following the Cold War. All of the resultant frenetic activity-global military commitments, homeland defense, ramped-up intelligence operations must be funded. So, bin Laden has already won a considerable fiscal victory over the American taxpayer above and beyond his psychological victory on the anxiety front.
He's also scored a triumph by prompting Americans to begin surrendering their civil liberties in the name of national security. The USA PATRIOT Act and various moves by the Bush Justice Department to curtail selected judicial and privacy protections historically enjoyed by our citizenry has weakened the Constitution and made this a less noble and less admirable society, as well as one with fewer individual freedoms. By indirectly inflicting the narrow, mean-spirited Ashcroft view of the world on us, bin Laden has done more fundamental damage than his plane hijackers did on Sept. 11.
In the process of turning America into a garrison state, replete with a military budget that is increasing exponentially, bin Laden has scored another signal success. Assisted by George W. Bush's tax cut for the wealthy, he has seen to it that our national life will be poorer in almost all material respects. The money that has disappeared down the tax cut/defense build-up rat hole won't be available to prevent a slide into deficit or bolster needed domestic spending. Next year's federal budget, for example, cuts job training, highway maintenance, and the Social Security surplus; new programs, such as a prescription-drug benefit under Medicare, won't even be considered. This doesn't bother the Bushies; they'd prefer not to have a serious domestic agenda anyway. What bin Laden has done is provide them with a convenient out. Their new war cry: Billions for defense; not one dime for anything else.
Bin Laden has won a few victories in the private sphere as well. Besides presenting the Bush administration with a rationale to cut all government services not connected to defense or homeland security, he's given American corporations an excuse to profiteer and exploit consumers. The example that jumps immediately to mind is the upward adjustment in premiums being planned by insurance companies in the wake of Sept. 11. Industry experts predict annual increases ranging from 15 to 30% for auto, home, medical and business coverage, with 40% to 50% jumps not beyond the realm of possibility. Terrorist-related claims only partly account for this looming economic outrage; a more basic, underlying cause is the loss insurers have incurred over the past two years recklessly speculating in the stock market. Nevertheless, 9/11 claims will provide the justification for a fleecing of the American public aimed at recouping investment shortfalls. Score another for bin Laden.
There is one final way in which the leader of al-Qaeda has worked his will, even if posthumously: He's succeeded in goading a foolish Bush administration into following a distorted and one-sided Middle Eastern policy. The diplomatic campaign accompanying the post-Sept. 11 war on terrorism was supposedly designed to win over the "moderate" Arab and Muslim majority to our side. It's not working because of the Bush decision to, in effect, equate Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organiza-tion (PLO) with bin Laden's al-Qaeda. The president appears unable to distinguish between a nationalist movement against colonial occupation and a quasi-religious criminal network opposed to Western culture and "infidels"; to the White House, it's all terrorism.
For reasons that smack of US domestic politics intertwined with an overall misreading of the situation, George W. Bush has bought into the extreme right-wing Israeli position regarding the Palestinian conflict. Arab moderates, who view things in a less simplistic manner, have been justifiably outraged by Washington's unbalanced approach. They see that Bush has met with Ariel Sharon six times since taking office, but has not met Arafat once. They hear his constant refrain that Arafat is untrustworthy and not doing enough, whereas Sharon, the so-called Butcher of Beirut in the Lebanese civil war, is a "man of peace." They witness the American unwillingness to criticize Israel's heavy-handed military tactics or withhold any of its annual $3 billion in US aid, while calling upon the PLO to maintain law and order in its territories without a security force or infrastructure. They know a double standard when they see one and consequently reject Bush administration calls to enthusiastically join its ill-defined crusade against Third World terror.
All this bin Laden has achieved by inducing a diplomatically and strategically challenged American president to overreact to 9/11, adopt insufficiently-thought-out policy positions, and undertake precipitant and counterproductive measures, or (in the case of the Middle East) none at all. Somewhere in his cave, he must be chortling and thanking his lucky stars that Florida and the US Supreme Court provided him with such a perfect foil.
O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.