He Won

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

In The Looming Tower, the Pulitzer-winning history of al-Qaeda and the road to 9/11, author Lawrence Wright lays out how Osama bin Laden’s motivation for the attacks that he planned in the 1990s, and then the September 11 attacks, was to draw the U.S. and the West into a prolonged war—an actual war in Afghanistan, and a broader global war with Islam.

Osama got both. And we gave him a prolonged war in Iraq to boot. By the end of Obama’s first term, we’ll probably top 6,000 dead U.S. troops in those two wars, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans. The cost for both wars is also now well over $1 trillion.

We have also fundamentally altered who we are. A partial, off-the-top-of-my-head list of how we’ve changed since September 11 . . .

  • We’ve sent terrorist suspects to “black sites” to be detained without trial and tortured.
  • We’ve turned terrorist suspects over to other regimes, knowing that they’d be tortured.
  • In those cases when our government later learned it got the wrong guy, federal officials not only refused to apologize or compensate him, they went to court to argue he should be barred from using our courts to seek justice, and that the details of his abduction, torture, and detainment should be kept secret.
  • We’ve abducted and imprisoned dozens, perhaps hundreds of men in Guantanamo who turned out to have been innocent. Again, the government felt no obligation to do right by them.
  • The government launched a multimillion dollar ad campaign implying that people who smoke marijuana are complicit in the murder of nearly 3,000 of their fellow citizens.
  • The government illegally spied and eavesdropped on thousands of American citizens.
  • Presidents from both of the two major political parties have claimed the power to detain suspected terrorists and hold them indefinitely without trial, based solely on the president’s designation of them as an “enemy combatant,” essentially making the president prosecutor, judge, and jury. (I’d also argue that the treatment of someone like Bradley Manning wouldn’t have been tolerated before September 11.)
  • The current president has also claimed the power to execute U.S. citizens, off the battlefield, without a trial, and to prevent anyone from knowing about it after the fact.
  • The Congress approved, the president signed, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a broadly written law making it a crime to advocate for any organization the government deems sympathetic to terrorism. This includes challenging the “terrorist” designation in the first place.
  • Flying in America now means enduring a humiliating and hassling ritual that does little if anything to actually make flying any safer. Every time the government fails to catch an attempt at terrorism, it punishes the public for its failure by adding to the ritual.
  • American Muslims, a heartening story of success and assimilation, are now harassed and denigrated for merely trying to build houses of worship.
  • Without a warrant, the government can search and seize indefinitely the laptops and other personal electronic devices of anyone entering the country.
  • The Department of Homeland Security now gives terrorism-fighting grants for local police departments across the country to purchase military equipment, such as armored personnel carriers, which is then used against U.S. citizens, mostly to serve drug warrants.

I’m relieved that bin Laden is dead. And the Navy SEALs who carried out the harrowing raid that ended his life have my respect and admiration. And for all the massive waste and abuse our government has perpetrated in the name of fighting terrorism over the last decade, there’s something satisfying in knowing that he was killed in a limited, targeted operation based on specific intelligence.

But because of the actions of one guy, we allowed all the bullet points above to happen. That we managed to kill him a decade after the September 11 attacks is symbolically important, but hardly seems worth the celebrations we saw across the country last night. There was something unsettling about watching giddy crowds bounce around beach balls and climb telephone polls last night, as if they were in the lawn seats at a rock festival. Solemn and somber appreciation that an evil man is gone seemed like the more appropriate reaction.

Yes, bin Laden the man is dead. But he achieved all he set out to achieve, and a hell of a lot more. He forever changed who we are as a country, and for the worse. Mostly because we let him. That isn’t something a special ops team can fix.

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246 Responses to “He Won”

  1. #1 |  Joe | 

    I am going with Usama bin Laden just to avoid the Obama typos with Osama bin Laden. My bad up above at #172.

    I agree that UBL caused a lot of grief and was a very bad guy. I agree that the US has, far too readily, given up civil liberties and freedom under the guise of safety. We need to resist that here at home. While we are at war with an enemy which is ruthless and cunning, I think we are slowly making headway. And while it is premature to declare victory, I suspect they did score a lot of invaluable information yesterday and that we may be on the way to breaking a lot of the remaining al Qaeda cells. Will that eliminate Islamo extremism? Heck no. But it is a step forward.

    UBL is not winning. He wanted a restored Calphanite. Now maybe the Muslim Brotherhood acheives that dream in Egypt, but my guess is it will not. Regardless of what you thought about events in Iraq, al Qaeda certainly didn’t get victory in Iraq. Rather the Muslim world got a taste of what it would be like with these guys in charge.

    Let’s learn from our mistakes and move forward.

  2. #2 |  Simple Man Baby Pays | Poison Your Mind | 

    […] Radley Balko says we lost: In The Looming Tower, the Pulitzer-winning history of al-Qaeda and the road to 9/11, author […]

  3. #3 |  Anger, Arrogance, Canada, and Osama bin Laden | 

    […] Laden struck terror in so many, but if you react to him with anger, as I see so many doing now, he wins, and he knew this.  Bin Laden is dead, but he can still hurt us if you allow him to do so.  Remember that; as […]

  4. #4 |  links for 2011-05-03 « Embololalia | 

    […] He Won | The Agitator In The Looming Tower, the Pulitzer-winning history of al-Qaeda and the road to 9/11, author Lawrence Wright lays out how Osama bin Laden’s motivation for the attacks that he planned in the 1990s, and then the September 11 attacks, was to draw the U.S. and the West into a prolonged war—an actual war in Afghanistan, and a broader global war with Islam. […]

  5. #5 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    …by M. Night Shamalan?

  6. #6 |  Obama Out of the Osama Loop « ricketyclick | 

    […] this from Radly Balko: because of the actions of one guy [Osama bin Laden], we allowed all the bullet points above to […]

  7. #7 |  jspoke | 

    He masterminded a horrible event, but did we really need to parade in the streets like sport fans whose team had won the Super Bowl/NBA Championship/World Cup/Stanley Cup. I wish that the “celebrating” had been more about remembering the 9/11 victims than devoting any attention to him. I also find it a bit hypocritical to be celebrating in the street because we “got him” yet being morally replused when Muslims celebrate the killing of our soldiers. We should better than this because we are Americans yet I felt that we were acting very much like people we supposedly “hate” so much.

  8. #8 |  Dave Ex Machina – A Thousand Points of Articulation » I Killed the Boss, Where’s My Powerup? | 

    […] He won. —Tags: […]

  9. #9 |  Tamora | 

    @ Osamaisdead

    Conceited. Sorry, I tend to block out any idea that what you’re saying is intelligent after the misspelling.

  10. #10 |  ‘David Hume’ misses the point « Occluded Sun | 

    […] the comment. Then read the post above […]

  11. #11 |  jason | 

    muslims are not allowed to build a simple place of worhship???? aw im so AGITATED. you got me you agitator you

    hey uh,, how many mosques are currently in the US? how many built since 9-11? seems a lot of mosques were allowed to me.

    the crowds out celebrating to me seemed mostly like college kids who what.. need an excuse to go binge drinking.

    your no better then all the other inflammatory rating whores. you finger pointers where was your intellect when WE needed you?

  12. #12 |  Gill Bates | 

    You made best of the web. Congratulations on you mention in Taranto’s daily. He’s right by the way.

  13. #13 |  CyniCAl | 

    The denizens of Plato’s cave knew more about the world than any of us here. It is beyond absurd to read the individual subscriptions to fairy tales, bedtime stories and campfire ghost tales here. The unification of church and state is complete — each of you is taking the word of the State as gospel truth, when the real truth is no one knows jack shit about who OBL is, if he really existed, what his intentions were, what actually transpired, etc. This has turned into a religious thread and is extremely uncharacteristic of the level of thinking usually found at The Agitator.

  14. #14 |  American Psyche « IAmA Cosmopolite AMA | 

    […] thousands of dead soldiers, war cost (3 trillion), tarnished American image, and degrading liberty (a list). Americans just want some closure, some silver lining, and an end to this nightmare, even though […]

  15. #15 |  In Which I Mostly Validate Your Osama Bloodlust | 

    […] like an Edvard Munch painting. Also strange to me is that less than a day after the single most accomplished terrorist of all time is murdered by a bunch of Americans, so many were in a race to winnow down the spectrum […]

  16. #16 |  Teenagers these days…. | The Agitator | 

    […] but I think this is depressing on many levels. Epecially if you read Radley’s excellent post the other day on how Bin Laden ultimately won, as he changed who we are as a country, and for the […]

  17. #17 |  Radley Balko Lays An Egg | his vorpal sword | 

    […] like the mildest criticism whilst taking his bows for mental acuity and other trapeze stunts, having rejected this mild comment: Welcome to the party, Mr. Balko, if just a couple years late. Ted Koppel was, himself, already a […]

  18. #18 |  Liz | 

    I’m Australian, so as one of your ‘allies’ 9/11 (or 9/12 in our country), we’re impacted by the decisions made. As a mum of two lil people, it concerns me as to the way the predominantly ‘Christian’ and ‘Muslim’ countries are becoming socially polarized & continue to be at war. But with all that’s transpired in the past, I still am unable to feel ‘good’ about Osama being murdered. In the words of a great American leader…

    “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” –Martin Luther King, Jr

  19. #19 |  This Is Where We Should Feel Good, Right? « Nothing Was Delivered | 

    […] And we blew it. For the past decade we have taken what could have been a an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to being a force of good in the world and have instead allowed our nation to become a funhouse mirror version of itself. And every one of us is responsible. We’ve turned on each other by allowing our civil liberties to be eroded. We’ve turned on others by claiming the right to invade other countries and treat their citizens as non-entities. […]

  20. #20 |  Celebrating a loss, Bin Laden’s victory in death | Daily Libertarian | 

    […] Read the rest at Balko’s The Agitator […]

  21. #21 |  wriskit | 

    Your interpretation of the” permanent” significance of OBL’s death is facile even if much of the details you cite are factual in describing our mistakes in strategy and execution since 9/11 which was an act of war that had to be answered. It should have been responded to by covert special forces since an army is useless against a group of terrorists. That responsible action would still have been criticized by you since covert actions do not follow the rules of judicial finesse except hat they are authorized by the executive power of the president. Covert action is still required today to confront terrorism. We should bring our armies home ASAP. The political battles over how we run the country can be decided by the will of the people if they only vote.

  22. #22 |  Civilization and Barbarism | Magic Blue Smoke | 

    […] the case of someone so virulent as Osama bin Laden, Radley Balko is right: he won. We saw to […]

  23. #23 |  demize! | 

    #211 Oh my brother, you have spoken many truths in that short post. I care not at all to discuss this further as I have become wearyan, but to say the elite lies with such ease and abandon as it always has. To expect the government not to lie just this once is to expect the scorpion to not sting the frog on crossing the river.

  24. #24 |  demize! | 

    Excuse syntax, grammer, spelling, etc. Kill my phone’s keyboard and my lack of patience.

  25. #25 |  chimpytt | 


    I think you will find we always have an enemy. We are always at war. OBL didn’t win shit, he was merely the face on the poster this decade.

  26. #26 |  SMT | 

    It’s much too simplistic to say Osama ‘won’ based on those two simple goals outlined above. Osama had other, much bigger goals which, in light of current events in the Middle East, can only be said to have failed.

    Osama was waging two battles – one against the US, in which yes, he drew the US into a couple of bloody wars, the long-term effects of which are yet unknown. However, his bigger dream of seeing the US collapse as the Soviets did before them has not come to fruition (yet), and he will not have lived to see it in any case. As for dragging ‘the West’ into an eternal war with ‘Islam’, all that shows is that Osama viewed the Muslim world and its relations with the rest of the world in much the same simplistic way that afflicts many Americans and Europeans.

    Osama’s second battle took place within the Muslim world, and here there’s no doubt he lost, big time, and it’s pretty much his own fault more than anybody else. There was perhaps a five-year opportunity post-9/11 when Osama could have successfully capitalized on the wave of anti-American feeling fuelled by the Iraq war and other issues. His aim was to mobilize the Muslim world to over-throw their regimes in order to implement his own brand of Salafism. Instead, he launched (or his followers launched, doesn’t really matter) a campaign of unimaginable brutality in Iraq and elsewhere, with all the horrible consequences that has brought upon Muslims everywhere, thus alienating the vast majority of them and completely discrediting his ideas. And nothing illustrates this better than the recent upheavals in the ME, where he has been exposed as…irrelevant. And good riddance.

  27. #27 |  The Harmlessness (and Inevitability) of “USA! USA!” « Submitted to a Candid World | 

    […] writer observes that we’ve done a lot for fear — and lost a part of ourselves in the process. But Bin Laden’s death, rationally or […]

  28. #28 |  Rob in CT | 

    It’s not really that OBL won (I’m putting that down as some exaggeration-for-effect in a headline), it’s that we scored so many own-goals. OBL himself lost (his goals were in many cases hilariously delusional), but our record is rather poor.

  29. #29 |  Boulderswithadashofsalt | 

    You should definitely see SYRIANNA (a geopolitical hypothetical literature-as-science portrait of the Middle East theatre(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syriana)) because OBL is just one piece of the horrible puzzle.

  30. #30 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    They faked the moon landing and Kid Rock’s career. They can fake OBL’s death.

  31. #31 |  Matt Derp | 

    I also disagree with those supporting excessive airport security, as it is basically security theater.
    None of the measures other than basic metal detectors (which have always been useful) have any practical use, our security measures are all reactionary, they are never preventative or proactive.
    We have to deal with liquid bans because of hypotheticals revolving around one of the least practical explosives ever to threaten air travel.
    When the shoe bomber tried to sneak bombs in his shoes, we made everyone take their shoes off, after the attempt already happened.
    When the underwear bomber tried to blow up the plane, we added full body scanning.
    We’re just lucky all of these attempts were foiled by dumb luck, for all intensive purposes they succeeded in defeating our security.
    None of these methods will ever repeat and the next attack will always be a method that circumvents the previous generation of security, all the while inconveniencing the rest of us, for a false sense of security.
    3d scanners?
    Expect explosives via body implants, removing non-vital organs for extra lethality etc…

  32. #32 |  Christopher Carr | 

    Dear Mr. Balko and readers, I have written a response to the death of bin Laden for my own website, the Inductive, which references this article. I’m wondering if I am correct in my assertion that the death of bin Laden serves more than anything as an opportunity to clearly perceive the nature of U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

    There is more on the death of Osama bin Laden and metanarrative at:


  33. #33 |  tedbohne | 

    was COMMITTED ACTS OF TERRORISM BY THE US FOR OVER A CENTURY, one of the list? the US is the leading purveyor of terrorism on earth, followed closely by Israel. if the US would cease terrorizing small countries, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t try against american marshmallows. the CIA and FBI stated publicly that no actionable evidence was found linking bin Laden 911, that mantel fell on the shoulder of Khalid Sheik Mohammed. George, and his dick, Cheney both ON TELEVISION backed away from bin Laden as the ringleader or mastermind of 911. 911 is still up in the air except for the people who have an IQ greater than shirt size. America is a terrorist state, and a rogue. It is run by an international banking cartel at top of which sits the Bank of International Settlements, (BIS) the bastard child of the Rothschild robber barons. US Corporations made a KILLING off of 911 and the resulting wars that are presently LOST. this “orgasmic” belch by the americans over bin laden’s death is sickening. buried at sea? why? they didn’t want his grave to become a shrine. well unless he was a hero to the middle easterners, why would anyone consider him worthy of a shrine. that dog don’t hunt. that’s why you have unmarked graves and fire. the story out of Washington has already gone through a number of transmutations. so, clearly the truth is yet to be known. But that doesn’t matter to americans. all their interested in is gods, guns and flags. the mental equivalent of a forest of tree stumps.


  34. #34 |  tedbohne | 

    now, the first responders have to prove they’re not terrorists to recover monies owed them by the US Corporate government for injuries and illnesses aquired at ground zero on 911. one more thing. if Usama bin Laden was hated so much, why did the US offer what they referred to as “observance of muslim religious rites?’ I know a side show when I see one, and this one isn’t any good.

  35. #35 |  Wiklliam C Wesley | 

    The CIA recruited and trained Osama Bin Laden during the Soviet Afgan war, Later they recruited and trained Sadam Hussien and helped instal him as leader in Iraq, this is a mater of public record. It seems to me that if the American people are seeking to find the source of our problems they need look no further than the CIA. Without the CIA there would have been no Osama Bin Laden, no Sadam Hussien, and earlier still no Pol Pot who killed 3 million people. Why do we not hold the CIA accountable for the actions of their former agents, who learned everything from them? Because ignorance is Bliss

  36. #36 |  Strange | 

    “The CIA recruited and trained Osama Bin Laden during the Soviet Afgan war … ignorance is Bliss”

    Apparently so.

  37. #37 |  Some depressing things « Other People's Ideas | 

    […] Economist’s Democracy in America blog links to this reflection on Osama bin Laden. While acknowledging the positive result of Bin Laden’s death – that […]

  38. #38 |  Phoenix Living » politicky weekend links > Reesa Brown's homepage | 

    […] He Won — how Bin Laden changed the face of America for the worse Obama and the End of Al-Qaeda — How Obama could actually come out of this looking awesome…if only… Muslim nations sound off on Bin Laden — so over him, already Top 10 Myths about Bin Laden’s death — wow these spring up fast […]

  39. #39 |  Peter | 

    Well said sir. Thank you (and also Judge Napolitano and John Stossel) for being the only Designated Drivers during this macabre nationwide lawn party.

  40. #40 |  Balloon Juice » Flying While Brown | 

    […] Yet people want to argue when you point out that Osama has won. […]

  41. #41 |  How the American people are like a 10-dollar whore | Nobody's Business | 

    […] keep us all safe no matter what the cost to our liberties and to our wallets. I’d call that an unqualified victory. Bin Laden and his nineteen 9/11 henchmen even got the U.S. government to be his abettors. He and […]

  42. #42 |  >How Osama Won « Spatial Orientation | 

    […] impeccably captures my sentiments on this delicate matter. I have nothing substantive to add to his column, so just read it! In fact, you should check his site regularly if you don’t already do […]

  43. #43 |  Personal Krubner » Blog Archive » Osama bin Laden’s victory | 

    […] Osama bin Laden’s victory Tuesday, August 09th, 2011 | Author: lawrence Radley Balko writes of all that Osama bin Laden acheived, in terms of changing the USA: We have also fundamentally altered who we are. A partial, off-the-top-of-my-head list of how […]

  44. #44 |  Friday Links (6-May-11) -- a Nadder! | 

    […] Great bit from Radley Balko about how in the end, Osama won […]

  45. #45 |  Afternoon NOLA Yard Action, Ya Hurd May? | 

    […] in response to my statement that we shouldn’t allow bin Laden to win.  Hello!?!?  As this article states, we’ve given bin Laden exactly what he wanted; he […]

  46. #46 |  Osama. | Miscellaneous Heathen | 

    […] most cogent and clearest analysis of all this comes from Radley Balko. In his view, dead or not, Osama won. You should read this, even if you skip most of the rest of these links. He set out to harm […]