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The Nefarious Ways 9-11 Turned America into a Lockdown State

Even after his death, Osama bin Laden thrives in the U.S.'s transformation into a lockdown state.

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Once upon a time, an argument over whether such drone strikes were legal or not might have had some heft to it.  After all, the United States was once hailed, above all, as a “nation of laws.”  But make no mistake: today, such a “debate” will, in the Seinfeldian sense, be an argument about nothing, or rather about an issue that has long been settled.

The drone strikes, after all, are perfectly “legal.”  How do we know?  Because the administration which produced that 50-page document (and similar memos) assures us that it’s so, even if they don’t care to fully reveal their reasoning, and because, truth be told, on such matters they can do whatever they want to do.  It's legal because they've increasingly become the ones who define legality.

It would, of course, be illegal for Canadians, Pakistanis, or Iranians to fly missile-armed drones over Minneapolis or New York, no less take out their versions of bad guys in the process.  That would, among other things, be a breach of American sovereignty.  The U.S. can, however, do more or less what it wants when and where it wants.  The reason: it has established, to the satisfaction of our national security managers -- and they have the secret legal documents (written by themselves) to prove it -- that U.S. drones can cross national boundaries just about anywhere if the bad guys are, in their opinion, bad enough.  And that's “the law”!

As with our distant wars, most Americans are remarkably unaffected in any direct way by the lockdown of this country.  And yet in a post-legal drone world of perpetual “wartime,” in which fantasies of disaster outrace far more realistic dangers and fears, sooner or later the bin Laden tax will take its toll, the chickens will come home to roost, and they will be able to do anything in our name (without even worrying about producing secret legal memos to justify their acts).  By then, we’ll be completely locked down and the key thrown away.

 Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s as well as The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His latest book, The United States of Fear (Haymarket Books), has just been published in November.