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Osama bin Laden, rock star

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden

It’s been almost ten years since the tragic attack on the World Trade Center changed the way Americans live and view the world. In that time, the United States has transitioned from a powerful and confident superpower into a dysfunctional, schizophrenic nation that is both confused and directionless in the fight against global terrorism. Dick Cheney thinks the President is soft; former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani can’t remember that September 11 was on George Bush’s watch. The next initiative in airline security will probably be to have the passengers fly naked.

Terrorism has become an obsession in America. The mere mention of a potential threat makes us rush to forgo more of our personal liberties in hopes of finding psychological safety. One wonders when we will acknowledge the reality that the superficial security we have put in place is for public consumption and of little or no use against a determined, invisible enemy.

America has elevated comic book characters like Osama bin Laden to rock star status. In doing so, like rock stars, we have given them global influence which they neither deserve nor could ever have achieved on their own. We cringe when we hear their names -- Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah. They have become embedded in our subconscious. They lurk in the shadows. We see their operatives behind every tree. Not bad for a loose network of fanatics with a bunch of “one and done” members.

It certainly seems more likely that we will find a smiling, clean shaven Osama bin Laden dressed in an immaculate Armani dinner jacket celebrating with a very dry Martini at the tables in Monte Carlo than we would in the desolate Tora Bora in Afghanistan. In fact, there is a real disconnect between our protracted conventional engagement in the Middle East and what we should be doing to actually combat terrorism, not tribalism, on a global scale.

Middle Eastern terrorists have succeeded in changing life in America. They have made Americans fearful, compliant and suspicious of their neighbors. Unwittingly, they helped reelected their poster villain, George W. Bush. Because of them, Bush was able to perpetuate a climate of fear that allowed him to successfully appeal to a broad cross section of timid, traumatized voters with a narrow platform of “national security plus any issue of your own choosing“. The real issues with which we're struggling today fell by the wayside.

At what point did these raggedy gentlemen wearing tea towels become bigger than life action figures in the minds of Americans? Why is it necessary to keep them top of mind by harping on their home away from home in a remote location like Guantanamo Bay? One has to suspect that their intelligence value would be dramatically diminished after five years in captivity. When did they become so potent that a maximum security prison in Illinois could not hold them and they became a real threat to 300 million Americans?

During World War II, the United States faced the combined threat of the German Abwehr and Japanese Kempeitai. Both organizations were massive, well funded, well trained professional intelligence units operating under the cover of their indigenous ethnic populations within the United States. Yet, without sacrificing personal liberty and without the high tech gadgetry available to the behemoth Department of Homeland Security, the nation went about its business with little or no disruption thanks to the investigative prowess of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the respective military intelligence units, and our judicial system.

Today we rely on quarter of a million Homeland Security personnel and a budget of $50.5 billion to defend the nation against terrorist attacks and prepare for natural and manmade disasters. Its powers and resources make the KGB and Gestapo look like Boy Scout troops. And what do we get for our money? The USA Patriot Act; FEMA’s Katrina response; the bumbling TSA shutting down the Bakersfield California Millimeter-wave scannerAirport for six bottles of honey; passengers spending the last hour of their airplane trip with hands in their lap like a school child; and now millimeter-wave scanners which are ineffective in detecting low density materials such as powders, liquids, pieces of plastic or anything that resembles skin but sound impressive and are great diversions for the scanning voyeurs.

Bottom line, when the President of the United States explains away Homeland Security’s failure to catch a lone perpetrator on a plane over Detroit as a “failure to coordinate”, then you know that the organization is too big, too compartmentalized and too slow to meet the needs of the nation. Oh yes, that’s after the perp’s father had already warned authorities that his son might be a threat.

After nearly ten years, it’s time for Americans to put aside the "woe is me, terrorist-behind-every-tree" mentality, just say "no" to more restrictions and controls and demand tangible results. If we need more controls, we're not winning. And if we're not winning, we have a right to know why! Americans have a historical aversion to living with foreign problems. We've already spent entirely too much blood and treasure chasing tyrants, looking for imaginary weapons of mass destruction and nationbuilding with far too few results.  

The battle against global terrorism is not going to be won by the USA Patriot Act, a millimeter-wave scanner in the Denver Airport or by 135,000 troops in Afghanistan. It’s going to be won by really smart investigators with gee-wiz technology and eye and ears on the ground in harm’s way in Yemen, Somalia, Houston, and Miami or wherever the bad guys decide to go next. No professional politicians, bureaucrats or candidates need be involved.

If we can’t make it work, let’s call in some real professionals. It’s a pretty fair bet that the Mossad will have some imaginative ideas to get our problem under control...if we have the courage to win.

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