Osama bin Laden Won (Twice)
by Tom Engelhardt
It’s July 2020 and I’m about to turn 76, which, as far as I’m concerned, officially makes me an old man. So put up with my aging, wandering brain here, since (I swear) I wasn’t going to start this piece with Donald J. Trump, no matter his latest wild claims or bizarre statements, increasingly white nationalist and pro-Confederate positions (right down to the saving of the rebel stars and bars), not to speak of the Covid-19 slaughter of Americans he’s helped facilitate. But then I read about his demand for a “National Garden of American Heroes,” described as “a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live” and, honestly, though this piece is officially about something else, I just can’t help myself. I had to start there.
Yes, everyone undoubtedly understands why General George Patton (a Trump obsession) is to be in that garden, not to speak — given the president’s reelection politics — of evangelist Billy Graham, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and former president Ronald Reagan. Still, my guess is that most of you won’t have the faintest idea why Davy Crockett is included. I’m talking about the frontiersman and Indian killer who died at the Alamo. Given my age, though, I get Donald Trump on this one and it gave me a rare laugh in a distinctly grim moment. That’s why I can’t resist explaining it, even though I guarantee you that the real subject of this piece is Osama bin Laden’s revenge.
After all, The Donald and I grew up in the 1950s in different parts of the same bustling city, New York. We both had TVs, just then flooding into homes nationwide, and I guarantee you that we both were riveted by the same hit show, TV’s first mini-series, Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier, starring the actor Fess Parker. Its pop theme song swept the country. (“Born on a mountain top in Tennessee, greenest state in the land of the free… Kilt him a b’ar when he was only three… Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier.”) The show also launched a kids’ craze for coonskin caps. (Who among us didn’t have, or at least yearn, for one?) So how could a statue of Fess Parker not be in the Garden of American Heroes?
And since Donald Trump is himself the essence of a bad novel (though he’s also become our reality), I just wonder: What about the Lone Ranger and Tonto, especially since there are no plans for Native Americans in his garden-to-be? They were a crew obviously put on Earth to be wiped out by white colonists, cowboys, and the cavalry in the kinds of Westerns both of us trooped to local movie theaters to see back then.
Or how about Hopalong Cassidy (Hoppy!), that other TV cowboy hero of our childhood? Doesn’t he deserve to ride in that garden next to another Trump military fixation, General Douglas MacArthur? After all, I know that Hoppy was real and this is how: When I was seven or eight, my father had a friend who worked for Pathé News and I rode in front of the tripod of his camera on the roof of that company’s station wagon in a Macy’s Day Parade in my hometown. (I still have the photos.) Somewhere along the route, Hoppy himself — I kid you not! — rode by on his white horse Topper and, since I was atop that station wagon and we were at about the same height, he shook my hand!
And here’s what makes Cassidy especially appropriate for The Donald’s garden landscape: in the 1950s, he was the only cowboy hero who dressed all in black right up to his hat (normally, a sign of the bad guy) and, in the process, created a kid’s craze for black shirts (his version of a coonskin cap), breaking its past association with either Italian fascism or mourning and bringing it back into the culture big time. Tell me honestly, then, don’t you think a garden of “heroes” in the age of Trump should have a few black shirts and an increasingly Mussolini-ish look to it?
An American Garden of Blood
So Donald Trump and I both lived through the same TV world in our childhoods and youth. We also lived through 9/11, still in the same city, although unlike him, I wasn’t practically a “first responder” at the site of those two downed towers, nor did I see all the Muslims celebrating across the river in Jersey City (as he claimed he did). Still, of one thing I’m convinced: Donald Trump is Osama bin Laden’s revenge.
Of course, that was all so long ago. The new century had barely begun. I was only 57 and The Donald 55 when those two hijacked planes suddenly slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in our hometown, a third one plunged into the Pentagon in Washington, and a fourth (probably heading for the White House or the Capitol) crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after its passengers fought back. Ever since, all you have to do is write “9/11” and everyone knows (or thinks they know) what it stands for. But on 9/11, there was, of course, no 9/11.
It was a breathtakingly unexpected event (although, to be fair, the CIA had previously briefed President George W. Bush on Osama bin Laden’s desire to hijack commercial planes for possible terror operations… oh, and there was that FBI agent in Phoenix who urged headquarters “to investigate Middle Eastern men enrolled in American flight schools”). Still, the downing of those towers and part of the headquarters of the singularly victorious military of the ultimate superpower of the Cold War, the one already being called “indispensable” and “exceptional” in 2001, was beyond shocking.
Admittedly, there’s history to be remembered here. After all, it wasn’t actually that military or that Pentagon that downed the Soviet Union. In fact, when the American military fought the Soviets in major proxy wars on a planet where nuclear catastrophe was always just around the corner, it found itself remarkably stalemated in Korea and dismally on the losing side in Vietnam.
No, if you want to give credit where it’s due, offer it to the CIA and Washington’s Saudi allies, who invested staggering effort from 1979 to 1989 in funding, supporting, and training the Taliban’s predecessors, groups of Afghan Islamic extremists, to take down the Red Army in their country. Supporting them as well (though, as far as is known, probably not actually funded by the U.S.) was a rich young Saudi militant named, believe it or not, Osama bin Laden who, before that war even ended, had founded a group called “the Base” or al-Qaeda, and would, in 1996, declare “war” on the United States. Oh yes, and though it’s seldom mentioned now, when charges are flying fast and furious about the possible recent Russian funding of Taliban militants to kill at most a few Americans in Afghanistan, in those years the U.S. poured billions of dollars into… well, not to put it too subtly, empowering Islamic extremists to kill the soldiers of that other superpower by the thousands in… yes, Afghanistan. How’s that for shocking?
In 1989, the defeated Red Army finally limped home from what the Soviet Union’s leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had taken to calling “the bleeding wound.” Only two years later, his country imploded and the U.S. was left alone, officially victorious, on Planet Earth (despite future fantasies of a horrific “axis of evil” to be faced), the first country in endless centuries of imperial rivalry to find itself so.
And what exactly did that triumphantly indispensable, exceptional superpower do but, a decade later, get dive-bombed by 19 — just 19! — largely Saudi hijackers in the service of tiny al-Qaeda and that wizard of terror Osama bin Laden, whose urge was then to provoke Washington into a genuine war in the Muslim world and so create yet more Islamic extremists. And did he succeed? You bet — and in a fashion even he undoubtedly hadn’t conceived of in his wildest dreams. Think of 9/11, in fact, as the greatest example of “shock and awe” in this century.
Here’s a feeling I still remember from the weeks after the 9/11 attacks when I saw where the administration of President George W. Bush was heading toward the invasion of Afghanistan and then, god save us, Iraq; when I watched our mainstream media narrow its focus to this country as the most victimized yet dominating and exceptional place on Earth and Osama bin Laden as the ultimate evil on this planet; when I watched the never-ending memorial ceremonies begin and what soon came to be called “the war on terror” be launched with up to 60 (count ‘em: 60!) countries in its gun sights, even if I didn’t yet know that, on 9/11 in the damaged Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had turned to an aide and said, “Go Massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not,” with a future invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq clearly in mind, though the Iraqi autocrat had no relation whatsoever to al-Qaeda (something you wouldn’t have known from the top officials in that administration in those years) — when, in short (though I didn’t yet think of it that way), I watched my own country become a “bleeding wound” that has never stopped flowing and, in Donald Trump’s Covid-19 moment, has turned into an American Garden of Blood.
Back in late September 2001, despite having been deeply involved decades earlier in the nightmare of the Vietnam War (and opposition to it), I could already sense war coming and it occurred to me that this was going to be the worst period I had ever experienced. Now that we’re in Donald Trump’s America, with hundreds of Americans dying daily of a disease that a reasonably responsible president and administration could have brought under control, the 3,000 deaths of 9/11 are beginning to look like a drop in the casualty bucket. (By the beginning of April 2020, Covid-19 deaths in New York City alone had already surpassed those of 9/11 by 1,000.)
And I wasn’t wrong in that hunch about this being the worst period, was I? Mind you, it was just a gut feeling then, no more — even though it would soon enough lead, almost inexorably, to the creation of my website, TomDispatch, and its focus on what turned out to be America’s never-ending wars of this century.
A Passport to Nowhere
Let’s get one thing straight, though. If, at that moment, you had told me that this country was going to launch a series of forever wars across what would turn out to be a significant part of the planet and fight them hopelessly for almost two decades or that, the more success proved absent in those same years, the more one administration after another would pour taxpayer dollars into the U.S. military, the 17 “intelligence” agencies, and the rest of the national security state; that what’s still known, with no accuracy whatsoever, as the “defense budget” would years ago have become larger than those of the next seven best-funded military powers on the planet combined and, by 2020, the next 10, and would still be rising; that domestic investment, from infrastructure to pandemic preparedness, would be starved for money in those same years, and that just about no one would protest any of this in the halls of Congress or the streets of America, I would have thought you a madman — or rather, the world’s best writer of dystopian fiction.
If you had told me that, in those very years, of the two great powers of this century, China and the United States — one rising, the other ever more clearly falling — the latter would lose approximately 7,000 military personnel (and at least another 8,000 military contractors) and many more wounded, not to speak of those who came home with PTSD or, under the pressure of repeated deployments to the sorriest of conflicts, committed suicide, while the former, as the New York Times reported recently in the wake of a bloody (but not weaponized) clash on China’s disputed Himalayan border with India, would have lost next to none, I wouldn’t have believed you. (“In four decades,” as the Times wrote, “the People’s Liberation Army had lost just three soldiers to fighting abroad — troops who were killed in United Nations peacekeeping operations in Mali and South Sudan in 2016.”)
If you had told me that, facing a devastating virus, the leader of one would largely suppress it — admittedly using the most authoritarian of methods — while, in his search for reelection, the leader of the other, officially still the greatest power on the planet, would ignore it, open the economy, churches, schools, and institutions of every sort and watch it run wild without a plan in sight; if you had told me that fewer than 5,000 people would die in the first of those countries and more than 134,000 (and still counting) in the other, leaving the American dead of 9/11 and the bloody wars of this century in the shade, and that it was all only getting worse, I wouldn’t have believed you. Not for a second.
And if, above all, you had told me that, deep into those years of bleeding abroad and increasingly at home, a near majority of Americans would vote to (as I wrote during election campaign 2016) send a suicide bomber into the White House, I would have told you that, though Osama bin Laden had been killed by SEAL Team Six in Pakistan and buried in the briny deep in 2011, Donald Trump was his living revenge, and that bin Laden had won twice — once thanks to those ludicrous, murderous forever wars across much of the Muslim world and the second time thanks to the pandemic from hell and the president from the same place.
Imagine if, in 1991 when the Soviet Union imploded, I had told you that, in 2020, not quite three decades distant, an American passport would be, more or less literally, a document for a trip to nowhere. Talk about a bleeding, or even hemorrhaging, wound! In the years to come, I think it will be ever more obvious that Donald Trump was, in fact, proof of Osama bin Laden’s success, of the fact that 9/11 and those 19 hijackers were all that was needed to produce the world of his dreams and the wounds that went with it.
And if, by the way, you wondered why I wrote this piece with the longest sentences I could possibly create, the answer is simple enough: two decades into the twenty-first century, I think it should be obvious that Americans have been given an exceptionally, perhaps even indispensably long sentence without parole on a planet already heating to the boiling point, 94,000,000 miles from the sun.
No, this truly won’t be “the American century,” but I doubt it will be the Chinese one either. By the time this crew is done, it may be nobody’s century. Thanks a heap, Osama! This is your bleeding wound, too.