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The Hangover: Questions for a Post-Bin Laden America

It's been a hell of a binge, hasn't it? Now it's hangover time. When the hangover ends, that's when the questions usually begin: Will we finally honor those "everyday heroes" we keep hearing about?
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We let him define us for a decade, and now he's gone. After a very American party, the crowds have gone home. Here's one of the more printable Twitter quotes from an online news item entitled "Pornstars Respond to Bin Laden's Death": "Bin Laden is dead. @dirtjunior666 and I are celebrating with margaritas. My foot hurts. Thats my day in a nutshell."

"I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear ..."

It's been a hell of a binge, hasn't it? I mean all ten years of it: the shock, the grief, the togetherness, the anger and political divisions, and finally the party. Now it's hangover time. When the hangover ends, that's when the questions usually begin:

Are we finally strong enough to keep our heads... and our values... under pressure?

It really was something, wasn't it? The way we came together after 9/11, before we let ourselves be manipulated and divided by cynics? Well, they're back. People are already writing pieces with titles like "Targeted Killing Justified." Rep. Peter King is claiming that the death of Bin Laden vindicates torture, although the experts say we probably would have found him sooner without it.

"Physicists ... discover things about a particular metal alloy when they subject it to extreme pressure ... under extreme pressure, people give you many more insights into their innermost being and tell us about who we really are." -- Werner Herzog

Rep. King asks: Wouldn't we have tortured Mohammad Atta on September 10 to save 3,000 lives? That's a foolish question, as interrogation experts already know. Atta would only have needed to confuse and delay us for twenty-four hours. Experts say that the quickest way to get information from a terrorist is by winning his sympathy. But sympathy doesn't provide the emotional satisfaction, or the electoral opportunities, soulless politicians like Peter King crave.

Advocates for torture and indiscriminate murder aren't just foolish, of course. They're also immoral. They wound our spirit, even as they weaken our national security. Would a peaceful, democratic uprising be sweeping the Middle East if we still advocated torture? Bin Laden's support in Egypt went from 61% in 2005 to 13% this year. That's a real national security victory. Think it would've happened if Peter King were president?

Other torture advocates were already trying to cover their tracks, even before the news came out. But whether they cower or bluster, it's too late for them. When it took courage to stand up for our values, they cut and run. Like a physicist's alloys, they revealed their true nature under pressure. A word to the wise from Walt Whitman: "Whoever degrades another degrades me, And whatever is done or said returns at last to me."

Will we finally ask questions about our invisible intelligence empire?

All those headline-grabbing, self-described "deficit hawks" have been quiet as church mice when it comes to the hundreds of billions, possibly more than a trillion in total, that we've spent building a secret, corporation-enriching intelligence empire. The Washington Post did a comprehensive, hard-hitting two-year study called "Top Secret America" -- and nobody read it. Their findings are staggering:

"1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence ... In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built - the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings ... (there is) redundancy and waste ... Analysts (publish) 50,000 intelligence reports each year - a volume so large that many are routinely ignored."

We keeping hearing about those ultra-powerful satellites that can read the words on a printed page from their orbits in space. Apparently they didn't read a paper that some UCLA geography professors and grad students wrote in 2009. It predicted, with 88.9% certainty, that Bin Laden was in an urban area within 300 kilometers of Tora Bora. Hindsight's always 20/20, but with all the money we're spending, you'd think every plausible theory was being investigated.

Old soldiers never die, they just go to work for Raytheon. Corporations hire generals, retired members of Congress, and former undersecretaries of Defense to win that next big contract. But when a few academics can outperform a trillion-dollar national security monolith, what are we getting for our money?

Those "deficit hawks" really ought to look into that.

Will we finally honor those "everyday heroes" we keep hearing about?

"Liberal" pundits are praising the president because, they say, his handling of the Bin Laden operation was "cold-blooded." But the Barack Obama I most admire is the Harvard Law School graduate who walked away from high-priced job opportunities to pursue a lifetime of service. I know the Dirty Harry pose is an electoral necessity these days, but I'd like to see more of the other guy.

The SEALS who carried out this killing were, in the language of the day, "seriously badass." But so are the teachers, firefighters, nurses, and other Americans under siege in Wisconsin and around the country. Instead of honoring them, politicians are trying to cut their health benefits. Are some of us so enchanted by wealth that we've come to hate hard work?

The honors graduate who becomes a teacher instead of a hedge fund manager... the doctor who stays in primary medicine while his peers get rich in radiology or cardiac surgery... the environmental advocate who turns down a six-figure job from the power company... the mom or dad who works a tough job to feed themselves and their family... Now that's what I call "badass."

Whitman again: "There is no trade or employment but the young man (or woman) following it may become a hero."

Will some deaths still be more important than others?

People eagerly surrender their liberties and their treasure to prevent terrorism, but cling resentfully to their wallets and howl about mythical "death panels" when the topic is health reform. According to estimates, somewhere between 300,000 and 400,000 people have died since 2001 because they didn't have health insurance. Last year's bill didn't do too much to stop that; it did too little. Now we're seeing proposals that would cut Medicare -- not "reform" it, cut it -- even though studies show that it prevents a lot of deaths, too.

Economic downturns may not seem as deadly as terrorist attacks, but they are. They lead to increased suicides, and studies suggest a link between foreclosures and higher rates of violent crime, including homicide. And the toll in misery is immense. The 2008 crisis left millions unemployed, caused poverty rates to skyrocket, and led to the loss of more than a million homes.

We're ignoring more warning signs right now: Sky-high unemployment. Stagnating growth. Shaky consumer confidence. Signals of a teetering real estate market. The "intelligence" reports couldn't be clearer: "Financial chaos determined to strike in the US."

Fortunately, nobody's recommending Rep. King's solution. We don't need waterboards on Wall Street. Some old-fashioned, ethical law enforcement will do just fine. But instead of stepping up their efforts to protect us, Washington pols are trying to roll back the weak financial protections we've put in place. No surprise: Bankers write campaign checks, but nobody lobbies for those who die alone.

"The real war," said Whitman, "will never get in books."

Most people say they love kids. When will we act like it?

You know what's really haunting me now? The story that bin Laden's twelve or thirteen year old daughter saw the shooting. It probably couldn't be avoided, but what will become of her? How can she recover from the trauma and ever lead a normal life? Is she tomorrow's jihadi queen, destined to instigate some future acts of brutality in her father's memory? Or will she be broken in spirit? Too often, those are the only alternatives left for the children of war.

Where will she go? You can't imprison an innocent child because of what she's seen, or for the DNA in her bloodstream. I hope we don't try.

What about our kids? We can put them through body scanners, but not through school. Those body scanners cost $100,000-$200,000 apiece, and it's been pointed out that bomb-sniffing dogs do the same thing. Dogs can "manufacture" themselves for free, too. Question: What can a body scanner do that a bomb-sniffing dog can't? Answer: Generate a six-figure invoice.

$100,000 buys a lot of books and pencils. Strange. We're willing to ask tough questions about schools and teachers, then look away when the subject is our safety and security.

Now what?

"My enemy is dead," wrote Walt Whitman, "a man divine as myself is dead." It's hard to share that sentiment, isn't it? Not many of us are that profoundly spiritual, that unsectarianly Christ-like. But then it was Whitman who found it "beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost."

We'll always have to protect ourselves from terrorists and madmen. But war? Lost and forgotten? Then we'd have to learn to chant "USA! USA!" when a life is saved, or a recession is avoided, or when schools have all the teachers and supplies they need. Ain't gonna happen, pal. We both know that.

The president said this the other night: "We are reminded that, as a nation, there's nothing we can't do." It was the right thing to say in his position. Yet every evening's news report reminds us that we know how to kill. And grieving military families are reminded every day that we know how to sacrifice ourselves, bravely and selflessly. We know how to die. But who's going to remind us how to live?

Bin Laden's dead. My foot hurts. That's my day in a nutshell.

Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Curbing Wall Street project and the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.

He can be reached at ""

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