As the world reacts to the death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, important questions should be asked about the impact his life had on America’s liberty and financial security.
It’s too soon to say whether bin Laden’s demise will make America safer or prompt a backlash of anti-American violence, but it’s clear that the federal government’s unprecedented response to his terror attack on September 11, 2001 has come at a steep price to citizens and taxpayers alike.
Given the thousands of American lives that have been lost and the mountain of borrowed money that has been spent financing our country’s so-called war on terror, a simple question needs to be asked: Was it all worth it?
In assessing the post 9/11 world that bin Laden’s terror attack created, has our nation absorbed a cost that goes far beyond dollars and cents? In other words, have we ignored the advice of Benjamin Franklin and traded “essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety?”
As the details of the hunt for bin Laden become part of the national lore, we must consider these questions—along with the harsh black and white numbers underlying them.
First, a total of 4,452 American soldiers have been killed in action in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion began in 2003. Meanwhile, a total of 1,566 U.S. troops have been killed in action in Afghanistan—most of them within the last three years as the conflict has escalated.
At last count, the direct taxpayer cost of both wars had eclipsed $1.1 trillion. With 47,000 American soldiers still stationed in Iraq and more than 100,000 fighting in Afghanistan, that tab is only going to increase. Also, because we are paying for these wars with borrowed money, financing costs will push the totals even higher.
Beyond the military costs—measured in both lives and dollars—hundreds of billions have also been spent on homeland security and intelligence gathering efforts since 9/11. In a special report published last September by The Washington Post, these efforts were described as “a hidden world, growing beyond control.”
“After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine,” the Post report noted.
What we do know of these costs is staggering. Last October, the federal government revealed that it was spending more than $80 billion a year on intelligence gathering—more than twice the pre-9/11 amount. Meanwhile the proposed budget for homeland security efforts in the coming fiscal year will top $71 billion.
Beyond the cost of lost lives and borrowed dollars, though, we must also consider the incalculable tab that has come with our eroded liberties.
America’s domestic surveillance program—with its warrantless searches, electronic eavesdropping, and indefinite “emergency” detentions—is every bit as much of a “clear and present danger” to this country as the terrorists it seeks to capture. By authorizing these measures, the government has trampled the First, Fourth, Fifth Sixth, Eighth, and 14th Amendments—all in the name of safeguarding our nation from itself.
In addition to these unconstitutional infringements on our liberties, Americans are being subjected to callous invasions of their privacy via intrusive pat-downs and obscene full-body scans at the country’s airports. Not only is this government-funded peep show reprehensible, it was recently revealed that these scans pose a much higher health risk than Homeland Security officials originally acknowledged.
Lost lives, lost money, and lost liberty—these are the true legacies of America’s response to Osama bin Laden’s attack a decade ago. While an important chapter may have finally been closed in the war on terror, it is hard to justify the price our nation has paid in closing it.
Andrea Millen Rich is president of the Center for Independent Thought. This column first appeared at Reason.com.