Since my retirement I have made more use of the local library, checking out mostly murder mysteries but also the occasional non-fiction book from the New Releases shelf. No matter how interesting the non-fiction books appear at first, though, I’ve had a hard time making my way through them, not because the books themselves are bad, but because they tax my aging attention span. As I have mentioned before, there are books I want to have read, more than I want to actually read them.
Nonetheless, I checked out Peter L. Bergen’s Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11/ to Abbottabad. This book I actually finished.
This is not a book rushed into print to take advantage of public interest in a news topic. Bergen is the author of a previous books on Bin Laden, including Holy War, Inc: Inside the Secret World of Osama Bin Laden, the manuscript of which he had turned in to his publisher the week before 9/11. The book has a ten page bibliography and 80 some odd pages of notes. Bergen has interviewed sources named and unnamed in the intelligence community and was able to see Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound before it was razed. There is a lot of detail in this book.
Some of the things I learned were, first, how invested President Bush was in trying to find Bin Laden himself. His seeming indifference in public Bergen’s sources attribute to Bush’s reluctance to remind the world that Bin Laden had attacked the US and evaded capture.
Also, I was not aware of how unsure the intelligence community was that the tall figure they saw walking in the garden of the compound truly was Osama Bin Laden. It made sense given all they knew, but there was a good deal of uncertainty still when the mission to go after him was approved. In the end it was decided that there was unlikely to be any better information forthcoming if the mission was postponed, and more chances of leaks.
There was planning during the final Clinton years to try to extract Bin Laden from Tora Bora using a similar scheme, but concern for losing any members of the mission led to proposed plans that involved over a hundred military personnel, which did not seem practical.
Bin Laden’s motivation for the attacks was to get the US out of the Middle East. Instead, of course, they brought our military there in force.
What stays in my mind, however, is not the detail so much as the ethical and philosophical implications that the book raises.
First of all, Bergen describes many of the “interrogation techniques” used on captives. It is sobering to think that these are the actions of my government, my country. Then there are the drone strikes, not all of which hit their intended targets. Bergen relates how the US used a faked vaccination project to try to obtain DNA from the children in the compound to confirm that the Bin Laden family lived there. Awareness of the faked vaccination program has led to distrust of real ones going on today. It is hard to read the book and not feel complicit.
The philosophical implications have been in my mind a long time, since the 9/11 attacks. I remember President Clinton’s ordering an attack on Bin Laden’s stronghold in Tora Bora while impeachment hearings were going on. There was a lot of criticism of the attack as being staged purely to divert attention from the impeachment hearings, and comparisons to the movie Wag the Dog.
What if the attack had succeeded? It is possible that the 9/11 attacks would still have occurred, in which case, no doubt a lot of blame would have fallen on Clinton for provoking them by assassinating Bin Laden. No one would have been aware that the attacks were in the works anyway.
On the other hand, perhaps with Bin Laden dead the plan would not have been implemented, 3,000 people would not have died, and the two towers would be standing today. There again, no one would have been aware that the plans would have been in the works, or that the nation owed President Clinton a huge debt of gratitude. Even if captured Al Qaeda operatives had confessed to plans to blow up the world trade center by flying planes into it, would anyone have believed such a plan could work?
So now my mind goes back to those “interrogation techniques” that make me think, not my country! Even if they did not produce any usable information, maybe there is way they could have somehow interrupted the chain of events that would have led to another horrifying event in some alternate universe.
There is a reason that “hypothesis contrary to fact” is considered a logical fallacy. It is just too easy to prove what you want to prove with hypotheticals. We have no way of knowing what would have happened in the alternate universes our minds can devise. We have only the task of living a just life in the world we do have.