A figure anywhere close to $3 trillion proves that bin Laden partially succeeded in his strategy, although Western defense corporations have never complained. This sum must be broken down further: how much of it actually reached the lives of those America and its allies are supposed to help? In other words, how much more money was spent fueling the “War on Terror” than resolving its root causes?
What we are left with, after bin Laden, is a lingering bill that was exacerbated by decisions made in a decade-long campaign against him. We borrowed money to finance the war on terrorism rather than diverting other national-security funding or raising taxes. We expanded combat operations to Iraq before stabilizing Afghanistan, which in turn led to the recent reescalation of the American commitment there. We tolerated an unsupervised national-security apparatus, allowing it to grow so inefficient that, as The Washington Post reported in a major investigation last year, 1,271 different government institutions are charged with counterterrorism missions (51 alone track terrorism financing), which produce some 50,000 intelligence reports each year, many of which are simply not read.
We have also shelled out billions of dollars in reconstruction funding and walking-around money for soldiers, with little idea of whether it has even helped foreigners, much less the United States; independent investigations suggest as much as $23 billion is unaccounted for in Iraq alone. “We can’t account for where any of it goes—that’s the great tragedy in all of this,” Hellman says. “The Pentagon cannot now and has never passed an audit—and, to me, that’s just criminal.”
It’s worth repeating that the actual cost of bin Laden’s September 11 attacks was between $50 billion and $100 billion. That number could have been higher, says Adam Rose, coordinator for economics at the University of Southern California’s National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events, but for the resilience of the U.S. economy and the quick response of policymakers to inject liquidity and stimulate consumer spending. But the cost could also have been much lower, he says, if consumers hadn’t paid a fear premium—shying away from air travel and tourism in the aftermath of the attacks. “Ironically,” he says, “we as Americans had more to do with the bottom-line outcome than the terrorist attack itself, on both the positive side and the negative side.”
The same is true of the nation’s decision, for so many reasons, to spend at least $3 trillion responding to bin Laden’s attacks. More than actual security, we bought a sense of action in the face of what felt like an existential threat. We staved off another attack on domestic soil. Our debt load was creeping up already, thanks to the early waves stages of baby-boomer retirements, but we also hastened a fiscal mess that has begun, in time, to fulfill bin Laden’s vision of a bankrupt America. If left unchecked, our current rate of deficit spending would add $9 trillion to the national debt over the next decade. That’s three Osamas, right there.
Although Bin Laden is buried in the sea, other Islamist extremists are already vying to take his place. In time, new enemies, foreign and domestic, will rise to challenge America. What they will cost us, far more than we realize, is our choice.