Sitting in a multiplex with a summer matinee crowd a few years back, I watched with an exhilarated buzz as our national security apparatus tracked down Jason Bourne as he zipped through the streets of a European city. The Bourne Ultimatum, as with the other movies in the series, offered an idealized vision of our intelligence capabilities. Keyboards controlled cameras, wiretaps captured conversations, computers processed data, and an army of agents dissolved into crowds in perfect choreography, waiting to pounce. The technology on display was awesome, the precision breathtaking. We were filled with wonder at the display of American proficiency.
And it was all oddly poignant. For here was a vision of American omnipotence existing where it could only be imagined: in the movies. Meanwhile, in real life, we were living in a time of American limits. We were mired in wars. We didn’t know where Osama bin Laden was. Shoes in plastic bins and shampoo bottles in Ziploc bags were the most tangible manifestations of homeland security, a far cry from the digitized fantasia of the CIA war room in the Bourne movies. No wonder our opinion of our capabilities had sunk. The techno-magic of Bourne may as well have been sci-fi.
But the clockwork operation that led to Osama bin Laden’s killing may reverse that decade-long wallow. The account of the mission is the stuff of the Bourne movies or Tom Clancy novels: a daring helicopter descent into a heavily fortified compound, followed by a surgical raid that found and killed bin Laden, all in less than 40 minutes, and all of it observed via video feed in the White House Situation Room. Within hours, bin Laden was buried at sea, in accordance with Islamic law.
The sense of wonder only grows when you learn about the other option that was considered and rejected: a bomber strike on the compound that would have left a huge crater, possibly no smoking body, and likely many more casualties. The choice of the scalpel over the machete was consistent with the President’s sensibility. That we could wield it with such care and accuracy—after a decade of flubs, of wild machete swings, of failure after failure—was just as surprising as the outcome of the mission.
Reading the accounts of the surgical strike, my mind flashed back to those impressions I had while watching the Bourne movies. It was somehow reassuring to learn that we can still perform these kinds of operations. More than reassuring: There was also the same rush of adrenaline and wide-eyed awe at the workings of a well-oiled national security machine.
But the triumphalism is complicated by another realization. Such technological precision and omnipotence in the hands of trusted guardians is obviously a good thing: We are safer for it. But imagine that power and those capabilities in the hands of unscrupulous, illiberal leaders. Suddenly the gleaming gizmos that protect us become the tools for the erosion of liberties. And it raises the question of whether we would really want that power at the government’s—or, thinking of our iPhones and Facebook and Twitter feeds, corporations’— fingertips, with its attendant costs and benefits, or not to have it at all.
In the wake of bin Laden’s killing, it’s hard to have second thoughts about the technology that protects us. But let’s make sure the nagging note of wariness remains in our consciousness. We’ll celebrate for the moment and give thanks that American tech wizardry and know-how (not to mention brute force) carried the day. After a long decade, we found out that we still possess astounding capabilities. Whether we have the wisdom to deploy them is a question that we must never stop asking.