When al-Qaida is defeated, can we have our liberties back? 

Last week brought the unsurprising news that the Transportation Security Administration had terrorized yet another 6-year-old with a humiliating pat-down. Dog bites man, federal agent gropes child — we’re becoming all too accustomed to this sort of thing in post-9/11 America.

Meanwhile, even the Obama administration’s top terror warriors are starting to admit al-Qaida is a spent force. Two weeks ago, in his first public comments after moving from the CIA to the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said al-Qaida’s defeat is “within reach.”

When we kill or round up some 10 to 20 remaining senior operatives, Panetta said, we will “really cripple al-Qaida as a threat to this country.” In fact, the threat has looked anything but robust for some time now.

Last summer, al-Qaida’s online journal Inspire, a sort of Soldier of Fortune magazine for wannabe jihadists, suggested using “a tractor or farm vehicle in an attack outfitted with blades or swords as a fearsome killing machine” — perfect for “mowing down the enemies of Allah.”

Among the treasure trove of materials seized from the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan was a missive from Osama bin Laden himself, condemning that scheme as “indiscriminate slaughter” — an odd objection coming from a mass murderer.

Yet somehow the terrorist mastermind missed the more obvious objection: The plan is utterly screwball, an embarrassment, the dumbest scheme since ... well, since al-Qaida operative Iyman Faris’ 2002 plan to cut down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blowtorch. As I’ve said before, sometimes you get the sense that these guys aren’t the sharpest scimitars in the shed.

The global intelligence firm STRATFOR put it more politely in a recent analysis: “The jihadists seem to be having a problem ... finding people who can master the terrorist tradecraft” and travel freely to the West.

They’ve been reduced to urging potential sympathizers who already live here to stock up at gun shows and shoot some infidels at the mall. But as STRATFOR said, “the very call to leaderless resistance is an admission of defeat.”

We may be winning, but don’t dare imagine “victory” will take the form of a restoration of lost liberties. That’s “defeatist” thinking. I suppose that’s why, shortly after SEAL Team 6 killed bin Laden, Congress and the president’s autopen got together to reauthorize the Patriot Act. The threat recedes, but the Surveillance State must live on.

And there can be no talk of beating porno-scanners into plowshares. The Homeland Security Department recently warned that terrorists might “surgically implant explosive devices” in their bodies.

Slate.com reported that several firms are already hard at work on scanners that can look inside our bodies instead of just inside our clothes. Like all other bureaucracies, the bureaucracy of fear has a merciless logic of its own. It exists to exist, generating new invasions of privacy — and new federal contracts — however speculative the threats.

Ten days after 9/11, in a speech to a joint session of Congress, President George W. Bush laid out his vision of al-Qaida’s demise: Heirs to the “murderous ideologies of the 20th century,” they would end up “in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”

Nearly a decade later, SEALs pitched the head murderer’s body off the side of the USS Carl Vinson into the North Arabian Sea — a watery grave that’s a pretty close approximation of Bush’s imagery.

Wired magazine defense analyst Spencer Ackerman asked the right question: “Why does the U.S. still need to devote such overwhelming resources worldwide against a force that’s seeing history pass it by?”

As 9/11’s 10-year anniversary approaches, isn’t it time we started thinking about a “peace dividend”?

Examiner columnist Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of “The Cult of the Presidency.”

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