Osama bin Laden TV screenshot
Perhaps now we can leave the War on Terror behind and focus on real threats. Photo: badjonni via Flickr.

With the death of Osama bin Laden, can America now face threats to our future more dangerous than Al Qaeda — peak oil and climate change?

After the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush called for the American people to show our unity with each other and our defiance of terrorists who would target the American way of life by going shopping. “Get down to Disney World in Florida,” he said. “Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”

This time, no shopping

Last night, President Obama celebrated the kind of unity we experienced as a nation in the wake of 9/11. But thankfully, in his speech Obama didn’t say anything about shopping.

The War on Terror has been dangerous not only to bin Laden and Al Qaeda, but it has also been a drain on the US budget that has also had a chilling effect on civil liberties and freedom of expression, spawning such abominations as the USA PATRIOT Act, which Congress reauthorized last year under Obama’s watch.

Yet, reassuringly, last night Obama focused less on security than on making sensible distinctions between friend and enemy. He reaffirmed that the US has not been running a war against Islam, since “bin Laden was not a Muslim leader. He was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed Al Qaeda slaughtered many scores of Muslims in countries including our own.”

For a few days or weeks, media people expect “threat levels” to remain elevated as Al Qaeda may try to demonstrate that it is not out for the count by attacking some high-profile target in the US or abroad. But barring a big terrorist strike, it seems likely that the War on Terror can now take a back seat to more pressing issues. I hope that cutting oil subsidies and making at least some small gesture towards a rational energy policy will be among these issues.

Obama concluded with a call to national unity rooted in a rosy view of the American past:

The cause of securing our country is not yet complete. But tonight we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history. Whether it is the pursuit of prosperity for our people or the struggle for equality for all our citizens, our commitment to stand up for our values abroad and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place. Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power but because of who we are. One nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

If you can get past the civics class platitudes, this would make a fine speech on the national security challenge that the US faces from peak oil and climate change too.

Beyond the War on Terror

Each year since 2001, on average only a few dozen Americans have died in terrorist attacks worldwide. But the wars that oil depletion has spawned have killed hundreds of thousands and cost more than a trillion dollars that our cash-strapped nation can ill afford to waste on blowing stuff up overseas.

Infamously, in his later years bin Laden added climate change to his list of grievances against the Great Satan America, and last year he devoted his first (and only?) speech to the subject, saying that the only way to stop it was to to bring “the wheels of the American economy” to a halt.

Was bin Laden just trying to hurt Democrats by associating his hated self with one of their issues? He did seem to enjoy the attention he got from Bush and the Republicans — they were good for Al Qaeda’s recruitment.

But it didn’t take foreign terrorists to push the US economy into deep distress.

Only time will tell whether today’s Great Recession, showing little sign of abating despite unconvincing media hype about recovery, turns out to be just a mini-Depression brought on by Wall Street greed and banking collapse or the beginning of what James Howard Kunstler has called the Long Emergency, the permanent end of economic growth brought about by peak oil.

But if there’s any greatness left in Americans at all, we must apply the inspiration of Obama’s words to preparing our communities for a lower energy future and cutting carbon emissions in our own lifestyles so that we can stop being the main cause of the problem and instead become part of the solution.

An excellent way to start would be to mark the death of bin Laden by skipping a shopping trip. Why not dedicate ourselves even more deeply to conservation and frugal living?

— Erik Curren