The bin Laden effect: How the Al Qaeda leader changed America
In life, Osama bin Laden made a huge impact on the US, all in the name of preventing another 9/11. If he and Al Qaeda fueled antagonism between the US and the Muslim world, they also pushed America toward a better understanding of the Middle East.
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"Enhanced interrogation techniques helped produce information that may have led to the takedown of bin Laden.... So there's no question but that the CIA interrogation techniques have proved very, very valuable," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R) of Georgia in a May 4 Fox News interview.Skip to next paragraph
Critics of harsh interrogation tactics point out that the story remains unclear as to which prisoner said what, and why, and how much it mattered. They also say this argument should not be just about short-term efficacy, but morality as well.
Bin Laden wanted to shock the US into overreaction, so as to divide it internally and from the rest of the world, runs this point of view. "We have just buried an enemy who cannily recognized that the only power right now capable of bringing down America is America. He sought to successfully use us against us, and he was for too long successful to too great a degree," wrote David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace and director of the international advisory firm Garten Rothkopf, in his blog on Foreign Policy magazine's website May 2.
Yet profound deviations from American moral norms occurred in previous conflicts. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus (protection against unlawful imprisonment). Franklin D. Roosevelt interned Japanese-Americans during World War II. To some extent, the US public accepted these measures as necessary during conflict. That does not mean the US moral compass permanently swerved.
The same process may be at work here. "I suspect over time bin Laden's impact on ... civil liberties will kind of diminish," says Nolan McCarty, a professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.
The USA Patriot Act, which governs wiretapping and other antiterror tools, was substantially softened when it was reauthorized in 2005, says Dr. McCarty. When it comes up for reauthorization again, it may be softened still more. "Things Americans were willing to accept [in the wake of 9/11] will seem more onerous over time," says McCarty.
Clash of civilizations
One of bin Laden's main aims was to produce mutual antagonism between the US and Muslim worlds. Did he succeed?
In a larger sense, he probably did not. US leaders continue to insist that their target is extremism, not a religion. President Obama expressed that view once again in his May 1 announcement of bin Laden's death.
But over the last decade, negative views of Islam have become common in the US, if not the majority view. One example: the recent debate over whether the House Homeland Security Committee should have held a hearing into extremist recruitment in the American Muslim community.