December 25, 2003

by Joe Sobran

     I don't want to spoil the high-alert holiday spirit, 
but no, Virginia, I don't believe in Santa Claus, and I'm 
having my doubts about Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and the 
terrorist threat.

     I'm writing before Christmas Day, and I could be 
proved horribly wrong by the time you read this. One more 
spectacular crime, on the order of 9/11, would make me 
eat my words. I only say I'm having my doubts.

     Government officials are urging us to carry on 
fearlessly with our normal lives, or, that's right, "the 
terrorists will have won." Isn't this like saying that if 
you lock your doors and install an alarm system, the 
burglars have already won? Here we've been warned about 
the al-Qaeda network for two years, and now we're to act 
as if we don't believe in it? What are all these 
multicolored alerts for, then? Holiday decorations?

     Granted, 9/11 -- far and away the most spectacular 
terrorist act of all time -- is a tough act to follow, 
even for determined fanatics. We certainly expected to 
hear more from them by now. We panicked at anthrax 
poisonings and power failures; we made duct tape the 
hottest product this side of the personal computer. 
Article after article has described the long global 
tentacles of al-Qaeda; news shows have shown the 
countless vulnerable points where terrorists might strike 
next -- unguarded seaports and the like. We've argued 
about whether airline pilots should be armed, and we've 
submitted to innumerable inconveniences and indignities 
in the name of security. We've debated whether Islam is 
inherently disposed to violence. The Federal Government 
has passed new laws and assumed new powers. And we've 
even waged a War on Terrorism.

     But it's starting to look as if al-Qaeda is running 
short of ideas or resources, or both. A single suicide 
bomber in, say, the Lincoln Tunnel could empty Manhattan 
in a flash, setting off an economic collapse. But despite 
many helpful suggestions of this sort, we haven't seen 
much. Al-Qaeda appears to be less imaginative than the 
U.S. Government and the American media.

     When the War on Terrorism began, President Bush 
warned us that it would go on for years, and even at that 
we might never know when we'd won. But we would win, for 
sure. And every military victory in Afghanistan and Iraq 
was celebrated as if we were sure it brought us closer to 
victory over terrorism. Lately we've been whooping it up 
for the capture of Saddam Hussein, though there is no 
proof at all that he had anything to do with 9/11.

     Santayana defined fanaticism as redoubling your 
efforts when you've forgotten your aim. That's a pretty 
good description of a War on Terrorism that turns into a 
vain search for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass 
destruction, though the weapons of 9/11 were a few crude 
blades that eluded airport searches.

     Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden -- whose exact role, if 
any, in 9/11 remains mysterious -- has vanished from the 
news magazines where his face used to appear weekly. 
Nobody (at least, no Westerner) knows if he is even 
alive, or if he has converted to Buddhism. We are assured 
that our intelligence services are hot on the trail of 
al-Qaeda, hence the latest alerts, but at some point we 
are entitled to be skeptical. Maybe the war has already 
been won, or maybe it has just fizzled out.

     At any rate, Saddam has somehow replaced Osama as 
the archvillain, if only because he was more available. 
Lots of Americans don't know the difference, or think 
they are more or less the same wicked Arab. Saddam's 
beard, at the time they got the drop on him, may have 
added to the confusion. "We got him!" Him? Whom?

     President Clinton, not Bush, is the one who nearly 
got Osama, back when Monica Lewinsky was the weekly cover 
girl and a timely distraction was called for. Bush, the 
fierce war leader, has never come as close as the 
peacenik president who made love, not war.

     But if we may never know when we've won the War on 
Terror, we may also never know when to be skeptical about 
the whole thing. In time we may suspect that Osama bin 
Laden has gone the way of Judge Crater and Jimmy Hoffa, 
never to be heard from again, for darkly inscrutable 
reasons. Not that we should be prematurely skeptical of 
our own government, but we should be ready for anything, 
even the realization that we've been had.


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