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 Osama, Where Art Thou? 

December 25, 2003

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.

[Breaker quote: When should we start doubting?]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.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
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