OPINION
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Bin Laden’s shadow

Even if the West, weary of apparently unsolvable problems, washes its hands of the dirty business that goes on there, Osama bin Laden is laughing in his grave. And he will go on laughing for years.

They killed Bin Laden, but if the Islamic paradise exists, he still has reason to celebrate September 11. Twelve years after that blow dealt to the infidel, its influence has not diminished but keeps expanding, as a determinant factor in US and EU foreign policy - restricting liberties, undermining democratic values, trampling on human rights, generating new fears and dilemmas in the Middle East (particularly just now in Syria) and causing chronic annoyance to everyone who gets on a commercial flight.

 The horror in New York and Washington was later repeated in London and Madrid, so much so that now the jihadists need only lift a finger to sow confusion and chaos. A mere telephone call will do. The interception, last month, of a few messages was enough to close more than 20 US embassies in Arab countries. An example of how Bin Laden's ghost haunts Western minds, substituting nuclear war as the new number-one scare factor.

In the Cold War the fear was less tangible to the average citizen. There were paranoid cranks who built fallout shelters in the backyard; but the specter of nuclear attack did not affect your day-to-day life. You entered public buildings as you would your own house, without any need of removing your belt and shoes and holding up your trousers. Now, if you happen to forget that you can't take a tube of toothpaste on the plane, you are liable to be searched like a criminal.

In the years I spent covering wars in Central America in the 1980s, I often flew to and from that region without once being searched to see if I was carrying a pistol, a grenade or a wad of plastic explosive, let alone a tube of toothpaste. Now we are all terrorists until proven otherwise, and more so in the United States - especially if we are citizens of some other country.

Of course US citizens are also liable to be treated like terrorists, as the case of Snowden shows. As John Le Carré recently put it: "There seems to be no limit to the violations to their hard-won liberties that Americans will put up with in the catchall name of counter-terror."

Indeed, only a minority of Americans resent the fact that their government is resorting to undemocratic and even terrorist methods against Bin Laden's heirs. On the one hand are the prisoners held in Guantanamo year after year, enduring torture with no trial or even charges; on the other, the policy of murdering mad mullahs with drones, which Obama inherited from George W. Bush. There are differences of opinion about how many innocent people have been killed by these remote-controlled contraptions. The US government has officially admitted to killing some 50 "non-combatants." Others say that the innocent victims number in the hundreds, which seems more likely in view of a Pakistani intelligence report recently released by the London Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which speaks of 147 innocent victims, 94 of them children, in the period 2006-09, and this in Pakistan alone.

The most immediate consequences of September 11 were the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The latter in particular was a "war of choice," Saddam Hussein having had nothing to do with Bin Laden. But the American public's thirst for vengeance, added to the presence of Bush II and his éminence grise Dick Cheney in the White House, made these wars practically inevitable, with some European governments joining in the show.

Now comes Syria. Whatever is said about chemical weapons, is the United States to be the moral conscience of the Arab world? Even if the West, weary of apparently unsolvable problems, washes its hands of the dirty business that goes on there, Osama bin Laden is laughing in his grave (apparently a watery one). And he will go on laughing for years.