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Monday, May 2, 2011

Bin Laden is dead. Now what?

I was at my desk on the sixth floor of the AFL-CIO Building on the morning of 9/11. It was a gorgeous autumn day. The AFL Building is across Lafayette Park from the White House. From the windows lining our south wall, we had an incredible view not only of the White House, but of the Washington Monument, the Potomac and the Pentagon beyond.

As usual, I was working on the phone. Bob Ozinga, chief of staff for the Building Trades department where I worked came running through the office telling people to get out of the building ASAP. I looked up at him in my doorway and he screamed "get off that mother->$&#(^*@# phone - we're under attack!" Looking beyond him toward our windows, I could see that instead of the usual DC panorama, there was a huge column of fire and smoke rising over the Pentagon.

"GET OUT," Ozinga repeated, "there's another one on the way." I was persuaded.

Along with everyone else in downtown DC, I milled about the street, wondering what was going on while planning my getaway. People were running, screaming, standing, crying, mute with terror or just caught within themselves.

I knew Cathy was in Los Angeles at a conference, so I didn't need to find her in that mob. But instead, I ran into several of her staff. They were panicked because the Metro subway system had been shut down and the rumors on the street were that there were bombs in the subway (not true).

Fortunately, I had driven into work that morning and had the car tucked in an underground garage nearby. I took Cathy's co-workers with me and we piled into the car to wend our way out of the city and into the Maryland suburbs. Working the back streets and going through Rock Creek Park, I got us into Montgomery County and took everyone to their homes, then went home myself.

The radio reports said the attackers using hijacked commercial airliners as their weapons so now I felt my own panic since Cathy was due to fly back from LA that day. The phone lines were jammed so I couldn't get hold of her. At home, the TV reports kept replaying the scene from the World Trade Center.

Several hours later, Cathy got through to me. She told me she was on the ground still in LA, and safe, but stuck there indefinitely.

In the days following, we all took stock of what had happened. By week's end, Cathy and her colleagues had lined up a plane to come back home. I got the call that the quarantine of DC had been lifted and I could go back to work.

That Friday, I drove into the city. Traffic crawled through security checkpoints. At almost every street corner, there was a Humvee with a mounted 50-caliber machine gun manned by a scared looking kid. They would track you with their machine guns as you passed them by.

Near the White House where I worked, there was a tight security cordon. No vehicles and identity checks all along the way. From my office window, I could see the missile batteries on top of the White House, but we were told to stay away from the windows. We were also told to never again go out on the balcony on the eighth floor (our favorite place for 4th of July fireworks). We were told snipers were zeroed in on our building, just in case.

Successive waves of security measures transformed Washington from an open and relaxed city into a land of paranoids. You needed a badge just to use your own office restrooms. Then we had the anthrax attacks followed by the insanity of the DC snipers.

George Bush had ordered the invasion of Afghanistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden and his crew and to oust the Taliban. Given what we had all been through, this seemed like a very good idea at the time.

You all know the rest. We went into Afghanistan and replaced the Taliban with a narco-kleptocracy. Then we forgot about bin Laden and decided to invade Iraq because going after Saddam Hussein seemed like a lot more fun. 

We have now had nine years of religious warfare and are edging into our third major conflict. We could go into battle with Syria, Iran or Pakistan at any moment.

We lost more than three thousand American lives on 9/11, almost 4500 dead in combat operations in Iraq, 2441 US and NATO dead in Afghanistan, plus almost 50,000 wounded.

There are no reliable or generally accepted statistics for Iraqi and Afghan casualties. Estimates range up to than 900,000. The lowest estimates put the toll at not less than 100,000 in Iraq and at least 10,000 in Afghanistan.

The 9/11 attacked started a sequence costing hundreds of thousands of lives plus many more wounded, orphaned or displaced. We ousted two hostile foreign governments and replaced them with two profoundly corrupt governments that hate us slightly less.

We undercut our own values and freedoms by waging pre-emptive war and curtailing civil liberties in the interests of security. We spent trillions. We are in a permanent state of anxious paranoia and permanent but vague "global war on terror." The Muslim world - almost one-fifth of the world's population - considers us a blood enemy.

Osama bin Laden was responsible for starting this. For that, US special forces under the leadership of Barack Hussein Obama put a well-deserved bullet in his head. But we are not innocent.

Now we must reflect on our own actions. Did we act justly and proportionally? Could we have done things differently? You may recall that some post-9/11 strategists said we should send teams of special ops troops, like those who have in fact killed bin Laden, and punish the masterminds behind the 9/11 attacks. Instead, we chose full-scale war not just in Afghanistan where the direct links to 9/11 were clear, but in Iraq which had nothing to do with 9/11.

And most important of all, we must decide what we do next. Do we want to continue to edge closer to an all-out anti-Muslim religious war? Is it time to say "enough?"

Author: Will Collette